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Blue Origin lander
The lunar lander concept by the “national team” led by Blue Origin, one of three that NASA is currently supporting through the Human Landing System program. The House version of a fiscal year 2021 spending bill provides NASA with only a fraction of the funding the agency requested for that program. (credit: Blue Origin)

Irregular disorder and the NASA budget

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It’s been a long time since there’s been anything like “regular order” in the congressional appropriations process: individual bills passed by the House and Senate, their differences resolved in conference to produce a final version that’s signed into law before the beginning of the fiscal year October 1. Instead, there are usually stopgap funding bills, called continuing resolutions, that extend for weeks or months before a massive omnibus bill, combining up to a dozen different bills, is eventually passed.

“These programs are being rushed to meet a politically motivated timeline to again place humans on the Moon’s lunar surface in a little over four years,” the report accompanying the spending bill said of NASA’s exploration programs.

Fiscal year 2021 is not going to be the year regular order returns to the appropriations process. The pandemic took hold in the early phases of the appropriations process, just as Congress was starting its usual series of hearings on various parts of the administration’s budget proposal released in early February. Congress instead devoted its attention to series of relief packages during the limited time it was in session this spring.

With no hearings about NASA’s budget proposal by either House or Senate appropriators, the first sign of their views about the agency’s budget had to wait until a few weeks ago. On July 7, the House Appropriations Committee released its draft of the commerce, justice, and science (CJS) spending bill that includes NASA. That bill provides $22.6 billion for NASA, the same amount the agency received in 2020. The White House, by comparison, asked for $25.2 billion for NASA.

The bill also restored cuts to several programs in the proposal, including the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (recently renamed the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope), the PACE and CLARREO Pathfinder Earth science missions, the SOFIA airborne observatory, and NASA’s “STEM Engagement”, or education, programs. The bill also added funding above the administration’s request for the Space Launch System so that work can continue on the Exploration Upper State needed for the Block 1B version of the rocket, something the administration sought to defer in the request.

“We reject the president’s proposed cuts to climate change research programs at NASA and NOAA and instead invest in those areas,” said Rep. José Serrano (D-NY), chairman of the CJS appropriations subcommittee, at a markup of the bill the next day.

The increases in science, education, and SLS accounted for more than $1.2 billion compared to the request, yet the overall funding in the bill is $2.6 billion below the request. Something had to give, and that was primarily in exploration. NASA’s Exploration R&D account, which includes the Human Landing System (HLS) program, requested $4.7 billion, but the House bill provides less than $1.6 billion. The HLS program alone sought $3.3 billion but would get just $628 million.

“The flat NASA allocation reveals a determination to rebuke America’s Moon-to-Mars Artemis initiative,” said Rep. Aderholt.

“These programs are being rushed to meet a politically motivated timeline to again place humans on the Moon’s lunar surface in a little over four years,” the report accompanying the bill said of NASA’s overall exploration programs. “In order to fund this massive expansion, the Administration chose to either reduce or eliminate many critical legacy programs, including Earth science programs that help monitor the environment, measure global climate change, and track rising sea levels.”

Republican members of the CJS appropriations subcommittee criticized the cuts in that July 8 markup. “The inadequate amount included for our landers undermines prior years’ investments in deep space exploration,” said Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX), ranking member of the full appropriations committee.

“The flat NASA allocation reveals a determination to rebuke America’s Moon-to-Mars Artemis initiative,” said Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), ranking member of the CJS subcommittee. He did, though, praise both the increase in SLS funding as well as a separate provision to support work on nuclear thermal propulsion, an activity that, like SLS, is led by the Marshall Space Flight Center.

The subcommittee, though, made no changes to the bill, and the full committee, meeting July 14, also did not take up any amendments related to the NASA portion of the bill. Appropriators have now combined it with six other spending bills into a single “minibus” bill that the full House will debate this week.

While one amendment to the bill seeks to increase NASA’s exploration account by $2.6 billion, to make up for the difference between the bill and the budget request, it doesn’t offset that spending elsewhere, making it unlikely the House Rules Committee will consider the amendment “in order” and eligible for debate. Thus, the House will probably wrap it work on a spending bill without the funding NASA seeks for lunar landers, putting the 2024 lunar landing goal in jeopardy—or, at least, in greater jeopardy than it is today.

NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine would have cause for concern about this. However, at least publicly, he’s trying to spin the funding as an endorsement of the overall HLS program. “I want to thank the House Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee for the bipartisan support they have shown for NASA’s Artemis program,” he said in a statement when the House released its bill.

His argument is that the House could have decided to zero out the program. Instead, they’re willing to provide some support for it, even though that funding would make it all but impossible for a lander to be ready by 2024. (One scenario privately discussed is to have a company make up the difference in the public-private partnership, putting in billions of dollars of its own money. It isn’t, though, considered a particularly likely scenario.)

Bridenstine is putting his hopes on the Senate to make up the difference. “That’s not everything that we asked for, but what it shows is there’s bipartisan support for this activity,” he said of the HLS funding in the House bill during a July 8 presentation at the NASA Exploration Science Forum. “We can work with the Senate to get more resources as is necessary to achieve the 2024 landing.”

The Senate, for now, hasn’t shown its intent about support for NASA in general or the HLS program in particular. Like the House, Senate appropriators didn’t hold a hearing on the NASA budget request because of the pandemic. The Senate also hasn’t started work on its own version of spending bills that can then be reconciled with the House versions.

In ordinary times, the Senate might pass a bill more favorable to the HLS program and, in the negotiations in the House, work out a compromise that secures both the HLS funding as well as the science and education missions funded in the House—possibly by raising the overall spending caps to do so.

But, of course, these are not ordinary times. Uncertainty about the pandemic and the need for future relief measures (like the one being discussed this week on Capitol Hill) makes it far more difficult to predict when appropriators might be able to reach an overall spending deal. The election this fall only increases that uncertainty.

“That’s not everything that we asked for, but what it shows is there’s bipartisan support for this activity,” Bridenstine said of the HLS funding in the House bill.

A change in administrations would almost certainly slow down the Artemis program, although it’s not clear by how much. A draft of a Democratic party platform released last week endorsed a return to the Moon, but not the 2024 deadline: “We support NASA's work to return Americans to the moon and go beyond to Mars, taking the next step in exploring our solar system,” it states in the one paragraph in the 80-page document devoted to civil space.

There’s also cause for concern about the future beyond the next fiscal year. The economic and social impacts of the pandemic will be felt for years to come, with implications for federal spending given the massive increase in budget deficits and requirements to get the pandemic finally under control. Space might be popular, as shown by the public interest around the Demo-2 launch in May, but that interest won’t necessarily translate into the budgets required to sustain all that NASA wants to do.

In many respects, then, regular order seems like a distant dream.

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