Space Policy Experts Caution NASA Increase Merely Keeps Pace With Inflation

Space Policy Experts Caution NASA Increase Merely Keeps Pace With Inflation

A trio of veteran space policy experts cautioned today that although President Biden’s request for a 7 percent increase for NASA in FY2024 is good news, in reality it merely keeps pace with inflation. The VERITAS Venus orbiter saw its budget all but vanish as science programs come under financial stress despite record levels of investment and the agency’s human spaceflight budget now needs to accommodate a space tug to deorbit the International Space Station.

The Aerospace Industries Association held a webinar today with its own Mike French, Casey Dreier from The Planetary Society, and Jean Toal Eisen from the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy.

All have spent years enmeshed in space policy and funding debates. French is AIA’s Vice President of Space Systems and a former NASA Chief of Staff when Charlie Bolden was Administrator. Dreier, TPS’s Chief of Space Policy, has spent the last decade leading TPS’s advocacy for planetary science, planetary defense and the search for life elsewhere. Toal Eisen just joined AURA as Vice President of Corporate Strategy after two decades on Capitol Hill as a Senate staffer on NASA’s authorization and appropriations committees.

Dreier called it a “workhorse” budget “that really doesn’t change very much” from FY2023 because of the impact of inflation. He argued that budget requests reflect an administration’s priorities and this one illustrates NASA is not a “broad priority” of the Biden-Harris Administration.

The request includes funding for a new $1 billion space tug to deorbit the ISS at the end of its lifetime around 2030. Until now, NASA and its ISS partners planned to use Russian Progress spacecraft for that task. NASA explains the sudden decision to build a space tug as needed for redundancy, but Toal Eisen views it as “something that tells us about where we are … in the world … with our reliance on the Russians” for ISS operations.

Dreier pointed out the $180 million FY2024 request for the new space tug is “almost at parity” with funding for NASA’s efforts to facilitate commercial companies to build replacements for the ISS that will be ready no later than 2030. That “tells you maybe the relative importance and priority of trying to develop this tug for these geopolitical motivations.”

He’s “excited to see $8 billion for Artemis,” NASA’s effort to return astronauts to the Moon, about the same amount of money as the request for science programs, but “there are so many things in the pipeline … it’s a relatively brittle budget” if anything goes awry.

Dreier focused on the planetary science request, which all but eliminates funding for the VERITAS Venus orbiter.

VERITAS was one of two Venus missions selected two years ago, but in November NASA decided to postpone it because the money was needed to finish a totally unrelated mission, Psyche, that experienced a cost overrun.

NASA said it would be a three-year delay, but the FY2024 budget request tells a different story. Only $1.5 million per year is requested through FY2028, enough to keep the science team intact, but not enough to proceed. Dreier called it a “soft cancellation,” putting it in “cold storage.” He later tweeted the irony that yesterday NASA published an article heralding VERITAS because it will be able to investigate evidence of volcanism on Venus.

He attributed VERITAS’s fate to pressures in the planetary science budget. “Something had to give” in order to fund other projects like Mars Sample Return (MSR), a multi-billion project to bring samples of Mars being collected by the Perseverance rover back to Earth.

The request for MSR this year alone is almost $1 billion and NASA itself warned that future funding is expected to grow beyond what’s shown for the next five years and choices will have to be made to reduce funding for other science projects or descope MSR.

The impact of MSR on other science programs is already being felt. Toal Eisen pointed out that the heliophysics budget is being cut by about $50 million, from $805 million in FY2023 to $751 million in FY2024. NASA plans to “pause” the Geospace Dynamics Constellation mission because other science projects have higher priority, specifically citing MSR.

Souce: NASA FY2024 budget book, p. HELIO-16.

NASA’s science priorities are guided by Decadal Surveys from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine that determine the key space science questions that need to be addressed in the next 10 years — a decade — based on consensus recommendations from the science community.

The most recent heliophysics Decadal was issued in 2013 with the Geospace Dynamics Constellation as a top priority for completion within that decade (2013-2022). A new heliophysics Decadal is currently in preparation for the next 10 years.

Toal Eisen said the FY2024 request basically says NASA is “cancelling the investment in the thing in the last Decadal because we’re waiting” for the new one, a frustrating disappointment.

Until a few months ago, she was the top staffer on the Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that funds NASA, which is chaired by Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH). She pointed out that heliophysics is a top priority for Shaheen because her constitutents, such as the University of New Hampshire, have “instruments or significant involvement in 17 of 19 heliophysics missions.”

“I’ve always told administration after administration that it is not smart to … cut what you think is the Chair’s highest priority because they’re just going to put that back in and take the money from something that you care about. Whereas if you make those priorities yourself as an administration, you have a lot more control.”

Toal Eisen’s departure is just one of many changes in the members and staff of the Senate and House appropriations committees as this year’s process gets underway.

Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT) and Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), the two top members of the full Senate Appropriations Committee, retired last year. They’ve been replaced by Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA) and Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME). Shaheen and Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS) continue as Chair and Ranking Member of the Senate CJS subcommittee.

Shelby represented NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville and had a strong influence on NASA’s budget.  Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), whose district is close to Marshall, is on the House Appropriations Committee and was expected to chair the House CJS subcommittee. Instead he’s chairing a different subcommittee and Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY) is chairing CJS. Rep. Matt Cartwright (D-PA), who chaired the subcommittee in the last Congress, is Ranking Member now. Rep.  Kay Granger (R-TX) and Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) are Chair and Ranking Member of the full committee.

What all that means is that none of the top eight people who decide on NASA’s appropriations directly represent a NASA center, which could make a difference in what is certain to be a stressful budget year. Granger is from Texas where Johnson Space Center is located, but her district is in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, not near Houston.

On top of that, the staff is changing. Toal Eisen and her Republican counterpart, Allen Cutler, have left after many years on the committee. Cutler will become President of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration next week. On the House side, Ben Turpen is the brand new Republican staffer handling NASA. His background is defense budgeting at DOD and the Office of Management and Budget. Toal Eisen noted that none of the staffers who wrote the reports for NASA’s appropriations last year are doing that now.

With House Republicans demanding dramatic spending cuts, committee and subcommittee members who have less of a vested interest in NASA than in the past, and new staff, NASA has its work cut out to get that 7 percent increase.

Though it may well be it would only keep pace with inflation and thus represents a flat budget, as Toal Eisen stressed, “no appropriator ever says that, they see it as a 7 percent increase.”


This article has been updated.

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