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NASA administrator Bill Nelson made his case for the agency’s 2024 budget proposal to House appropriators in April, who are now considering significant cuts in their spending bills. (credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

A chaotic trajectory for NASA’s budget

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The federal appropriations process is never easy, but some years are more difficult than others. This year appears to be shaping up to be one of the more difficult ones, particularly for NASA.

That process started in March with the release of the president’s budget proposal for fiscal year 2024. There were few surprises in that proposal, with the only new major project seeking funding is a deorbit vehicle for the International Space Station: $180 million in 2024 for a vehicle that agency officials said might cost up to $1 billion, all to provide redundancy for Russian Progress cargo spacecraft to ensure a safe deorbiting of the station around 2030.

The budget proposal sought an overall increase of 7.1% for NASA to $27.2 billion. While at first glance that might look a healthy increase, it was only roughly keeping pace with inflation over the last year.

One scenario that saw NASA’s budget cut by 22% from 2023 levels “would have devastating and potentially unrecoverable impacts,” Nelson warned.

Budget proposals are just that: proposals that are often substantially altered by Congress. (If you had a dollar for every time someone says, “The president proposes but Congress disposes,” you could fund NASA for a substantial part of next year.) That process plays out over months in the House and Senate.

However, it was clear early on that there would be problems, not for NASA specifically but for the overall appropriations process. The new Republican leadership of the House, expressing concerns about large budget deficits, said they would only agree to an increase in the debt ceiling, needed by June, if it was also accompanied by caps that could cut spending on discretionary programs, like NASA.

How much of a cut was not clear from those initial proposals. However, Democrats on the House Appropriations Committee asked agencies to outline the potential effects in two scenarios. In one, overall discretionary spending, both defense and non-defense, was reduced to 2022 levels. In the other, overall discretionary spending was reduced to 2022 levels but the cuts concentrated on non-defense agencies.

In his response, NASA administrator Bill Nelson warned of dire consequences in either scenario. In the first, NASA’s budget would drop to $24 billion. That would delay several planetary science missions already facing budget and schedule problems (see “The hard truths of NASA’s planetary program”, The Space Review, March 20, 2023) as well as other Earth and space science missions. NASA would delay work on that ISS deorbit tug and slow down funding for commercial space stations to succeed the ISS. It would also “substantially delay” Artemis 4 and end work on contracts to support later Artemis missions.

In the second scenario, NASA’s budget would fall to $19.8 billion, 22% below its 2023 level. Many of the science missions facing delays in the first scenario would now be in danger of cancellation, NASA argued. There would be a “substantially increased risk to U.S. presence” in low Earth orbit by delaying the deorbit tug and commercial space station work while also cutting back on cargo flights to the ISS. The cuts would also threaten Artemis 4 and “defer lunar exploration beyond Artemis IV.”

“To fund NASA at such a level in FY 2024 would have devastating and potentially unrecoverable impacts,” Nelson said of the latter, more severe scenario in his letter to House Democrats.

Even as the bigger debates about spending caps continued between House Republicans and the White House, NASA’s budget pressures only got worse. Appearing before Senate appropriators April 18, Nelson said he was informed that the Mars Sample Return (MSR) effort needed more funding than what was in the request for 2024, or even what was provided in 2023.

“I was just out there,” Nelson said of a visit to JPL, the lead center for Mars Sample Return, “and they’re saying they want an additional $250 million in this year—meaning in this year, existing, 2023—and 2024.” He didn’t elaborate on what prompted that increase, and the agency has not been forthcoming since that testimony on potential cost increases, noting that MSR is still working towards a review this fall that will set a formal cost and schedule.

Nelson was also forced to defend, at both that Senate hearing and one the next day by House appropriators, a potential cut in the Dragonfly mission to Saturn’s moon Titan. Nelson said that the mission was still on schedule for a 2027 launch, although project officials later said they were evaluating the effects of the proposed cut on the mission.

During the Senate hearing, Nelson stated several times that, despite a record budget of $8.26 billion for science proposed for the agency for 2024, tough decisions about missions were necessary. “In the largest science budget ever, you can’t fit 10 pounds of potatoes in a five-pound sack,” he said.

That 2024 request assumed a spending increase that looked doubtful amid the debt ceiling debate. “A 22% cut or a continuing resolution that would leave the funding at the ’23 level would cause a slowdown of programs at NASA across the board,” Nelson warned House appropriators.

“In the largest science budget ever, you can’t fit 10 pounds of potatoes in a five-pound sack,” Nelson said.

Those debt ceiling negotiations—conducted under the threat of a government default in early June if there was no deal—concluded with an agreement over Memorial Day weekend. In exchange for suspending the debt ceiling through 2024, non-defense discretionary spending would be held at 2023 levels for fiscal year 2024 and increased 1% for 2025. It was a reduction in real spending power when accounting for inflation, but far less than the worst-case scenarios from the spring.

The caps are not across-the-board measures: appropriators can increase or decrease spending for individual agencies or departments, and their individual programs, within those caps. However, NASA officials now recognize that the 7% increase they requested for 2024 seems unlikely.

“We do have to face the reality of the debt limit ceiling agreement and what might happen to our 2024 budget request,” Pam Melroy, NASA deputy administrator, said at a June 7 meeting of the National Academies’ Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board and Space Studies Board. “We recognize that it’s unlikely we will get the full request, and we know that’s going to create challenges for us in the future.”

She didn’t elaborate on the specific challenges, beyond stating that NASA will have “some hard decisions this year.”

Other NASA officials echoed those sentiments. “What we would cut now, I couldn’t tell you,” Ken Bowersox, NASA associate administrator for space operations, said at a Space Transportation Association event June 8.

That uncertainty stems from the fact that House and Senate appropriators have not started work on most of their spending bills, including the commerce, justice and science (CJS) one that funds NASA. Only last week did House appropriators approve how much money would be available for each of the dozen spending bills they will consider, known as 302(b) allocations.

That House decision, though, might cause NASA to dust off those worst-case scenarios from the spring. Rather than approve allocations for non-defense spending bills that, in sum, would be the same as for 2023, the Republican-led committee opted for significantly lower allocations for many of those bills.

“While the Fiscal Responsibility Act set the topline spending limit, it does not require that we mark up our bills to that level,” Rep. Kay Granger (R-TX), chair of the committee, said in an opening statement at the June 14 hearing, referring to the bill that raised the debt ceiling and enacted spending caps. “Simply put, the debt ceiling bill set a ceiling, not a floor, for fiscal year 2024 bills.”

Those 302(b) allocations, approved by the committee on a party-line vote, would provide $58.7 billion for the overall CJS bill, 28% less than 2023 spending. There is no insight into how that might be distributed among the various agencies included in the bill, but it is hard to imagine a scenario where NASA does suffer significant reductions to some of its programs.

The only thing certain for the next several months is that NASA is unlikely to get all that it asked for in 2024, or even possibly all that it got in 2023.

That said, there is still months to go in the appropriations process. Some Republican members of the committee have claimed that “clawbacks” of spending elsewhere, such as unspent pandemic relief aid, that was part of the Fiscal Responsibility Act might offset some of those cuts, but they have not provided details. Appropriators have not announced when they will take up a version of the CJS spending bill.

The Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled to approve its 302(b) allocations later in the week, and the Democratic-led committee is expected to stick close to the spending cap level. That will make reconciling the House and Senate spending bills challenging, to say the least.

In the past, such a scenario might end up being resolved with a year-long continuing resolution holding funding at 2023 levels. Given that would be close to the best-case scenario for many agencies, though, there’s a risk a divided Congress might not be able to pass that, prompting a government shutdown until one side or the other yielded.

The only thing certain for the next several months is that NASA is unlikely to get all that it asked for in 2024, or even possibly all that it got in 2023. The questions will be what parts of the agency bear the brunt of any reductions and how that will affect priorities ranging from returning humans to the Moon to studying the rest of the universe, as well as our own planet.

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