Although the Trump administration is once again seeking to cancel several projects in NASA’s science portfolio, Congress appears likely to continue funding for them. However, the agency is waiting for lawmakers to decide whether to provide billions in additional dollars needed to meet the administration’s marquee goal of landing astronauts on the Moon in 2024.
As NASA enters fiscal year 2021, the foremost question it faces is whether Congress will provide billions in additional dollars the agency says its Artemis program needs to achieve a crewed lunar landing in 2024. NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has warned it will become increasingly difficult to meet that goal if full funding is not provided by early next year, but some in Congress question whether the agency’s plans are adequate to the task.
In spending legislation it passed this summer, the House proposed level funding for NASA with only a fraction of the request for Artemis, arguing the program is “being rushed to meet a politically motivated timeline.” The Senate has not released its counterpart spending proposals, and Bridenstine recently visited Capitol Hill to persuade key Senate committees to support the agency’s plans. Yet, Congress is not expected to make a final decision before the Nov. 3 election, when a turnover in the presidency could presage a slowdown in Artemis’ breakneck pace.
Comparatively, there is less at stake for NASA’s science programs. The Trump administration has repeated past proposals to cancel some Earth Science projects and the flagship Roman Space Telescope, and it has for the first time proposed canceling the airborne SOFIA observatory. However, Congress has been steadfast in its support for these activities, and the House’s spending bill shows no sign of a course change.
The House’s proposals are detailed in its spending bill and the accompanying appropriations committee report, and are summarized in the charts below. Detailed figures are available in the FYI Federal Science Budget Tracker.
Most of the funding needed for the first Artemis landing is to complete development and manufacture of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion crew vehicle, and to develop and construct a crewed lunar lander.
The House has proposed more than requested for SLS, which has champions in both the House and Senate. However, it proposed only about $1.6 billion of the $4.7 billion requested for NASA’s Exploration R&D account, which funds the lander among other projects. While the Senate has not made its own proposal, the chamber’s lead appropriator for NASA, Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS), asked Bridenstine last month whether NASA would be willing to reduce the number of competing lander proposals it is funding from three to one when the project enters its next phase. Bridenstine, though, expressed reluctance to eliminate NASA’s options.
Lunar science. The House proposes to increase funding for the Science Mission Directorate’s Lunar Science and Exploration program from $300 million to $410 million, short of the $452 million requested. The difference is mostly accounted for by the House’s proposal to increase spending on the Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program from $185 million to $213 million instead of the requested $254 million.
NASA uses CLPS to purchase the services of commercially developed and operated robotic landers to convey science and technology payloads to the lunar surface. The first landers are scheduled to launch next fall and so far NASA has lined up six CLPS missions altogether through 2023, five of which are funded by the Science Mission Directorate. Although NASA has stated it is willing to accept higher risk with CLPS missions because they aim to foster commercial lunar capabilities, the agency’s inspector general recently flagged the program for adopting rushed schedules and using contractors with unsatisfactory performance records.
(Image credit – Astrobotic)
Mars. The House would provide level funding of $570 million for Mars missions, $42 million more than requested. Following its successful launch this past summer, funding for the Perseverance rover is set to drop from $353 million to $162 million. The House proposes ramping up funding for the nascent Mars Sample Return mission to $250 million, exceeding NASA’s request, and asks the agency to provide a year-by-year funding profile for the mission through a target launch date in 2026. The House would also direct NASA to maintain the $11 million operating budget for the Mars Odyssey orbiter, which NASA had proposed terminating to alleviate budget pressure caused by a cost overrun on Perseverance.
Europa. The House proposes to ramp down the Europa Clipper’s budget from $593 million to $404 million, meeting NASA’s request. The flagship mission, which will perform multiple flybys of Jupiter’s icy moon Europa, has passed the peak of its funding profile and its budget should continue to decline ahead of its launch readiness date in 2025. The key question is whether Congress will continue to insist that it launch using SLS or accede to NASA’s request that it use a commercial heavy-lift rocket, which would be cheaper and more likely to be available on time. The House report “strongly encourages” NASA to use SLS but includes language that allows NASA to determine if it must plan for an alternative. By the end of this year, the mission will undergo its critical design review, when the costs of keeping launch options open will escalate significantly.
For a second straight year, the House recommends no new funding for a Europa lander mission, but language in its bill does direct NASA to launch one by 2027. The launch date stipulation has been pushed back from even more aggressive schedules mandated when the mission was championed by Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), who lost his seat in the 2018 election. NASA, though, has indicated it is focusing on a launch no earlier than 2030 and is waiting to see how the mission is prioritized in the next planetary science decadal survey, due for release in 2022. The House proposes to raise funding for the separate Icy Satellites Surface Technology program from $14 million to $35 million, prioritizing “investments in landing, mobility, sampling, communications, autonomous operations, and power technology for low-temperature environments.”
New Frontiers missions. The House would meet NASA’s request of $179 million for its New Frontiers program, which funds the most expensive missions that are selected through open competitions and developed by teams from outside the agency. NASA has pushed back by one year the most recently selected New Frontiers mission, the Dragonfly rotorcraft mission to Saturn’s moon Titan, citing in part pandemic-related budget strain. However, NASA’s inspector general has pointed to Dragonfly’s anticipated lifecycle cost of about $2 billion as an example of how the growing expense of missions across all cost scales is threatening to slow their cadence.
Planetary defense. The House would meet NASA’s request for level funding of $150 million for efforts to detect near-Earth objects such as asteroids and to explore ways to mitigate threats from them. This includes at least $66 million for the Double Asteroid Redirection Test, a mission scheduled to launch next summer that will physically strike a small asteroid orbiting another so that Earth-based observers can study the dynamical effects. The House report does not specify funding for the Near-Earth Object Surveyor Mission, a space-based infrared telescope. Although NASA decided to move forward with the mission last year, it is seeking funds only for instrument development and the House follows suit, directing the agency to “continue instrument formulation.”
Arecibo Observatory. The House report specifies it provides “continued sustained funding for existing ground-based observatories, including the Arecibo Observatory,” in connection with their role in detecting and characterizing near-Earth objects. Arecibo is owned by the National Science Foundation, which is seeking to reduce its share of the operating costs. The report was released before the observatory suffered damage this summer from a broken cable.
Roman Space Telescope. Rejecting the Trump administration’s proposal to defund the project, the House proposes full funding of $505 million for the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, formerly known as the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope. The House report also stipulates that within that total, NASA should continue developing a coronagraph technology demonstration. The Senate report for last year’s appropriations bill broadly reiterated previous years’ direction that the mission adhere to a $3.2 billion cost cap. Earlier this year, NASA committed to a $3.2 billion baseline cost for the mission’s development, not counting the coronagraph demonstration, which is expected to cost an additional $334 million. NASA Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz told FYI at that time that the baseline commitment is consistent with the Senate’s intentions.
(Image credit – NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)
Webb Space Telescope. The House would keep the James Webb Space Telescope’s budget level at $423 million as the mission prepares for its long-awaited launch next year. NASA most recently pushed back the launch date this summer, from March to October 2021, mainly due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but the agency indicated it would not need more funding to cover the cost of the delay.
SOFIA. In contrast with its other termination proposals, the Trump administration has justified targeting NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy on the grounds the airplane-mounted telescope’s scientific output is small relative to its high operating costs — a point also backed by a recent audit. However, SOFIA has strong backing in Congress, including from House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), and the House is proposing to maintain steady funding for it.
Other activities. Although the House would provide nearly $500 million more for NASA's Astrophysics topline than requested, its support within that for the Roman Space Telescope and SOFIA would leave $716 million for all other missions and programs, well short of the $819 million requested.
PACE and CLARREO Pathfinder. For three years straight, Congress has rejected the Trump administration’s proposals to cancel the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) satellite and the CLARREO Pathfinder instrument for measuring reflected solar radiation. The House proposes to do so a fourth time and provide the projects with about $145 million and $25 million, respectively. The House report also protects the $10 million budget of NASA’s Carbon Monitoring System, which the administration has previously sought to terminate.
Earth System Science Pathfinder. The House proposes increase funding for the Earth System Science Pathfinder program from $299 million to up to $377 million, exceeding NASA’s $339 million request. The program supports a portfolio of low-cost missions, instruments, and investigations accommodating new and emerging scientific priorities and measurement capabilities. The House report specifically mentions the Geostationary Carbon Cycle Observatory (GeoCarb), an instrument payload with a target launch date in 2022, noting it will “demonstrate the feasibility of using a commercial communications satellite to host a scientific instrument which will measure vegetation off-gassing and help detect fugitive methane emissions, while also serving as a cost-saving model for future Earth Science research needs.”
Decadal survey projects. The House would provide up to $75 million, nearly double NASA’s request, for early work on up to two missions focused on “designated observables” identified in the 2017 Earth science decadal survey.
The House report provides no specific direction for NASA’s Heliophysics Division. Much of its proposed cut to the division’s topline, from $725 million to $633 million, reflects a temporary funding reduction for the Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP). The reduction is related to budget shifting surrounding a new launch-sharing arrangement with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Space Weather Follow-On Lagrange 1 spacecraft and is not expected to affect IMAP’s scope or progress.
International Space Station research. This year, NASA transferred its biological and physical sciences program, which focuses on research based on the International Space Station, to the Science Mission Directorate. The House report is mainly silent on the program but “encourages NASA to conduct studies that evaluate the effects of zero gravity and deep space radiation on development through non-human mammalian embryologic experiments.” Separately, the report directs NASA to continue implementing recommendations from a recent independent review that made scathing criticisms of the nonprofit contractor NASA uses to administer non-NASA research aboard the station.
Space nuclear technology. The House proposes steady funding of $110 million for the development of a nuclear thermal propulsion system. NASA, though, is seeking flexibility from Congress to shift the focus of its space nuclear technology program to include nuclear electric propulsion as well as a surface power system that could be used at a lunar base.
In-space servicing and assembly. The House proposes to maintain funding at $227 million for a technology demonstration mission known as On-Orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing 1 (OSAM-1). The main part of the mission, formerly called RESTORE-L, aims to robotically refuel Landsat 7. Another, recently added payload called SPIDER seeks to robotically assemble a 3 meter communications antenna. The House would also provide the $21 million requested for work on a second demonstration now designated as OSAM-2 that will attempt to 3D print its own solar array, which it will then assemble and deploy.
STEM engagement. The House proposes to increase the budget for NASA’s Office of STEM Engagement from $120 million to $126 million. The increase would be evenly divided between the Space Grant program, the Minority University Research and Education Project, and NASA’s EPSCoR program, which seeks to build research capacity in states and territories that traditionally receive a smaller share of federal research grant funds. Congress has consistently rejected the Trump administration’s proposals to shutter the office.