July 18th, 2023
The proposed budgets for NASA in the House and Senate for the fiscal year 2024 have been unveiled, reflecting funding constraints imposed by the “Fiscal Responsibility Act.”
While the budgets provide NASA with all or most of the funding the White House requested for the Artemis program, which aims to return humans to the Moon, they still result in overall cuts to the agency. Of particular concern is the potential impact on the Mars Sample Return mission.
Under the Fiscal Responsibility Act, which was signed into law June 3, non-defense discretionary spending is to remain capped at fiscal year 2023 levels for fiscal year 2024, which begins Oct. 1, 2023, with no more than a 1% increase for fiscal year 2025. These budget restrictions have contributed to what amounts to stagnant funding levels for NASA.
The Biden administration’s 2024 request for NASA stood at $27.2 billion when it was released in March of this year. Following the Fiscal Responsibility Act, the agency’s budget proposed in the House and Senate, released last week, allocate $25.4 billion and $25 billion, respectively. For comparison, the final enacted NASA budget for fiscal year 2023 was $25.4 billion.
Both the House and Senate NASA budget proposals are part of the larger 2024 Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies appropriations bill in their respective chambers.
During the Senate Appropriations Committee markup session on July 13, Ranking Member Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., said he is disappointed by the overall cut to NASA.
“The science community and certainly NASA contractors, they will be disappointed in that as well,” Moran said. “These deep and painful cuts were inevitable under the deal that the speaker [Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif.] and the president cut.”
Despite the overall budget cuts, the Artemis program looks to receive nearly all the amount requested by the White House.
The bulk of the Artemis program falls under Human Exploration. This includes the Space Launch System, Orion spacecraft and Artemis Campaign Development activities such as the Human Landing System program and Lunar Gateway.
In March, the White House requested about $8 billion for Artemis. The House bill agrees with the president’s request with the Senate offering about $7.7 billion.
Both the House and Senate proposals represent an increase for Artemis from 2023 levels, demonstrating a continued bicameral and bipartisan support for crewed space exploration beyond low Earth orbit.
“We were able to protect the most important national priority within NASA’s budget, at least in my view, which is to return humans to the Moon and maintain our strategic advantage in space,” Moran said during the Senate markup session. “NASA will have a lot of work to do to figure out how to continue on the programs they are currently planning.”
Other areas of NASA’s budget are not likely to fare as well.
In the Science Mission Directorate, the White House requested an increase to $8.7 billion from $7.8 billion in 2023. However, both the House and Senate propose lower funding levels at $7.4 billion and $7.3 billion, respectively.
The proposed budget in the Senate, for example, indicates the Mars Sample Return mission could face significant setbacks.
A Senate report attached to its budget proposal urges NASA to rein in the budget of the Mars Sample Return mission and keep it within the original $5.3 billion lifecycle budget. There are concerns the program may end up costing nearly double that amount.
The report said NASA should provide a detailed funding plan within 180 days of the 2024 budget’s enactment. If the agency cannot keep it within the original cost profile, the program may face cancellation.
Moreover, the White House requested $949 million for the program, but the Senate wants to slash that to $300 million with the caveat that if the program is canceled, its funding should be doled out to other programs, including $235 million to Artemis.
The potential cancellation or delay of the Mars Sample Return mission could have far-reaching implications for scientific exploration and understanding of the Red Planet.
Examining other proposed budget allocations, the Space Technology is slightly below the White House’s request in both the chambers of Congress ($1.2 billion in the House and $1.1 billion in the Senate), but remains consistent with the 2023 levels.
Safety, Security and Mission Services also falls below the White House’s request but aligns closely with 2023 funding of $3.1 billion.
Space Operations, which includes support for the International Space Station program as well as commercial crew and cargo, would see funding lower than the $4.5 billion White House request, but both proposed House and Senate budgets are similar to the roughly $4.3 billion allocated in 2023.
The NASA Inspector General budget would remain relatively unchanged across the board and Aeronautics funding, while at or above 2023 final levels, falls below the White House’s request.
Meanwhile, NASA’s STEM (science, technology engineering and math) engagement programs face potential cuts. The proposed budget in the House allocates $89 million compared to $144 million in 2023, while the White House had requested $158 million. The Senate, however, is proposing STEM engagement remain at 2023 levels.
Another area significantly impacted is the Construction and Environmental Compliance budget, which would see a decrease compared to 2023 and falls significantly short of the White House’s $454 million request. This area of NASA’s budget is for expenses related to the construction, repair, rehabilitation and modification of agency facilities. The House and Senate are proposing $248 million and $379 million, respectively.
As the budgetary process unfolds, negotiations will continue to shape the final fiscal year 2024 budget for NASA. Once the funding bill that includes NASA passes in both the full House and Senate, any discrepancies will need to be settled in a reconciliation conference committee before being sent to the president’s desk for his signature.
Derek Richardson has a degree in mass media, with an emphasis in contemporary journalism, from Washburn University in Topeka, Kansas. While at Washburn, he was the managing editor of the student run newspaper, the Washburn Review. He also has a website about human spaceflight called Orbital Velocity. You can find him on twitter @TheSpaceWriter.