What’s Happening in Space Policy April 14-20, 2024

What’s Happening in Space Policy April 14-20, 2024

Here is SpacePolicyOnline.com’s list of space policy events for the week of April 14-20, 2024 and any insight we can offer about them. The House and Senate are in session this week.

During the Week

Our pick of the week starts off the week — tomorrow’s (Monday’s) NASA briefings on their decision about the path forward for Mars Sample Return. But there are plenty of other important events, especially on Wednesday, which is a busy, busy day.

NASA has been wrestling with the fate of Mars Sample Return since last September when a second Independent Review Board (IRB-2) concluded the entire architecture for the NASA/ESA mission needs to be reconsidered and it’ll cost a lot more than NASA or the planetary science community thought.

Illustration of the spacecraft for the current Mars Sample Return campaign architecture. From left: NASA Ingenuity-class helicopter, ESA Earth Return Orbiter, NASA Perseverance rover, NASA lander with ESA robotic arm, and NASA Mars Ascent Vehicle. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA requested $949 million for MSR in FY2024, a number embraced by the House Appropriations Committee, but shunned by their Senate counterparts who recommended less than one-third of that, $300 million, and had some pretty harsh language in their report. In the final appropriations bill, Congress left it up to NASA to decide how much to spend between those two amounts ($300-949 million) and did not agree to the Senate language.

NASA’s FY2025 request for MSR literally is listed in the budget document as “TBD,” the first time we’ve seen that in a budget request to Congress. It’s there pending NASA’s decision on how to respond to the IRB-2 report plus the dramatic change in NASA’s budgetary outlook for FY2024 and FY2025 because of the caps imposed by the Fiscal Responsibility Act last year. For FY2024, NASA wasn’t just held to their FY2023 funding level, but cut 2 percent below that. For FY2025, only one percent growth is allowed for all non-defense discretionary spending, though the NASA request is for a 2 percent increase that would merely return it to its FY2023 level. That’s way below the projections from last year.

The planetary science budget took quite a hit in FY2024 and the request would hold it to the same amount in FY2025 regardless of what happens with MSR — that is, if NASA now decides to put money into MSR, it would have come from within the amount requested, not on top of it.

We’ll find out tomorrow at 1:00 pm ET what NASA plans to do when NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and Science Mission Directorate Associate Administrator Nicky Fox hold a media briefing to share their decision. Fox will lead a virtual Town Hall meeting with the science community immediately afterwards.

Then it will be up to Congress. It holds the purse strings. There are strong advocates for MSR in Congress, mostly from California where the program is managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which had to layoff 8 percent of its workforce earlier this year. But there also are members who don’t want to see MSR eat everyone else’s lunch, especially in Maryland, home to Goddard Space Flight Center and the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab that build a lot of other NASA planetary probes.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson will release NASA’s decision on the Mars Sample Return mission on Monday, and testify to the House Appropriations CJS subcommittee on NASA’s FY2025 budget request on Wednesday.

We’ll probably get a hint of how NASA’s House appropriators feel about it on Wednesday when the Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee holds its hearing on NASA’s FY2025 request. That subcommittee was all-in on MSR last year, but if they want to proceed full steam ahead, they’ll either have to plus-up NASA’s budget commensurately — unlikely given the budget caps — or take it from somewhere else within the agency, which would present other difficult decisions. Nelson is the sole witness.

The House CJS hearing on NASA is just one of five space-related hearings this week — one on Tuesday and four (including NASA’s) on Wednesday.

All the others are on DOD programs. On Tuesday, the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) will hold a hearing on the FY2025 request for the Department of the Air Force, which includes the Air Force and the Space Force. HASC will hold its hearing on Wednesday.  The witnesses in both cases are Frank Kendall, Secretary of the Air Force, Gen. B. Chance Saltzman, U.S. Space Force Chief of Space Operations, and Gen. David Allvin, Air Force Chief of Staff.  The two committees already have announced when they plan to mark up the FY2025 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA): HASC on May 22 and SASC on June 12.

Also on Wednesday, the House Appropriations Defense Subcommittee will hear from DOD top brass including Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin on DOD’s total budget request in the morning.  In the afternoon, the House Appropriations Military Construction-VA subcommittee will hold a hearing on the MilCon requests for the Air Force and Space Force. Bruce Hollywood, Associate Chief Operations Officer, will be there representing the Space Force.

By the way, we explained the situation with the House Appropriations Committee last week, with Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX) stepping down. Fortunately, House Republicans decided to make the transition to a new chair uneventful. Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) was appointed as the new chair and by the end of last week he’d reorganized the subcommittee chairs (he headed one of the subcommittees so there was a domino effect) and the process seems to be unfolding seamlessly. No change to the subcommittee chairs for CJS (NASA/NOAA) or Defense (DOD).

Victoria Samson, SWF Chief Director, Space Security and Stability, will be part of a webinar on Wednesday to discuss the 2024 SWF and CSIS counterspace reports.

That’s just the congressional hearings on Wednesday. The BUSY day starts with the Secure World Foundation (SWF) and the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) holding their annual joint briefing on counterspace activities around the world. They publish separate, but complementary reports every year. The Secure World report came out earlier this month. We haven’t seen the CSIS report yet. The virtual event features Victoria Samson and Brian Weeden from SWF and Clayton Swope from CSIS. (FYI, Weeden has announced he’ll be leaving SWF on April 26 to join the Aerospace Corporation’s Center for Space Policy and Strategy and lead its policy and regulatory team.)

And on Wednesday afternoon, NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel holds the public session of its quarterly meetings with NASA. It’s only available telephonically, but usually well worth a listen.

Whew!  The good news is that Thursday and Friday are quieter.

Those and other events we know about as of Sunday morning are shown below. Check back throughout the week for others we learn about later and add to our Calendar or changes to these.

Monday, April 15

Tuesday, April 16

Tuesday-Wednesday, April 16-17

Tuesday-Thursday, April 16-18

Tuesday-Friday, April 16-19 (continues through April 26)

Wednesday April 17

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