Numbers can be deceiving, and budget numbers especially so. When the White House released its 2024 budget proposal March 9, it included $27.2 billion for NASA, 7.1% more than what the agency received for 2023. It appeared to be a sign of strong support for the agency on the heels of successes like the launch of Artemis 1 and the deployment of the James Webb Space Telescope.
“This budget request reflects the administration’s confidence in NASA and its faith in the world’s finest workforce,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a brief “State of NASA” speech the day the budget came out.
However, neither the White House nor NASA noted that the increase came at a time of high post-pandemic inflation. While a 7% increase looks good on paper, in reality, it is a flat budget that roughly keeps up with inflation.
As the agency released more details about the budget, more warning signs appeared. Cost growth and delays, particularly in science missions, have heightened concerns in the space community that the agency doesn’t have enough resources to do everything on its plate and on its current schedule.
Those stresses are perhaps most evident in the budget for NASA’s planetary science programs. The 2024 proposal offers $3.38 billion, an increase of $180 million over 2023, a far cry from the $1.34 billion budget planetary science had a decade ago.
But as scientists investigated the detailed budget proposal NASA released March 13, two numbers stood out: $1.5 million and $949.3 million. The former was the proposed budget for the Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy (VERITAS) mission, and the latter was the budget for Mars Sample Return.
The $1.5 million for VERITAS was not necessarily a surprise. NASA announced in November 2022 that it was delaying that Discovery-class Venus orbiter mission, previously scheduled to launch by 2028, to no earlier than 2031. That was to free up personnel and other resources at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which is leading work on VERITAS, for other missions after an independent review into the delayed Psyche mission found broader institutional issues at the lab.
What was more concerning to scientists, though, was that the future “outyears” projections in the budget kept VERITAS funding flat at $1.5 million a year — enough to sustain the mission’s science team but little else — through 2028. That suggested an indefinite delay, if not an outright cancellation.
“That’s functionally a soft cancellation,” said Casey Dreier, chief of space policy at The Planetary Society. His organization has started a petition asking Congress to restore enough funding for VERITAS to enable a launch in 2029.
The detailed budget came out as planetary scientists gathered near Houston for the annual Lunar and Planetary Sciences Conference (LPSC). During a NASA town hall session, many expressed their opposition to the VERITAS budget, concerned it set a dangerous precedent.
Among those speaking at the town hall was Sue Smrekar, principal investigator for VERITAS. “This mission that was on track is being effectively martyred for all those missions that are going over budget,” she said. “The reason that so many in the community are outraged by this are these facts, that a mission that was on track is contingent on Earth science missions and all kinds of things that have nothing to do with us.”
Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s planetary science division, said at the town hall that the restart of VERITAS depended on several factors, including progress made by JPL to resolve its institutional issues as well as completion of two major missions, Europa Clipper and the NISAR Earth science mission, that require extensive resources at JPL.
Another factor, she said, would be finding the budget for it. In the months since VERITAS was delayed, NASA had polled the planetary science community: would they prefer continuing with VERITAS, or proceeding with a new competition for a Discovery mission? The implication was that there would not be money for both.
The response was overwhelmingly in favor of VERITAS. “It would be very upsetting to miss the Discovery call, but if they’re implying that they would defund VERITAS in order to fund the Discovery call, that’s even less acceptable,” said Bruce Banerdt of JPL, who led the InSight Mars lander mission, also part of the Discovery program, during a meeting of the Mars Exploration Program Analysis Group in February.
Glaze said that message came through loud and clear. “I really applaud the whole community for standing behind a selected Discovery mission. I think that’s exactly what we should be doing,” she told a committee of the National Academies’ Space Studies Board March 28. But, she warned, “there is a very real possibility” that NASA will have to delay the next Discovery competition, which is currently projected for 2025.
“The bottom line is that there has been significant stress on the planetary budget. Its resiliency has been pretty much all but exhausted,” she said. “Something was going to have to give at some point.”
MARS SAMPLE RETURN
The other number that stood out in the planetary budget, $949.3 million, was for Mars Sample Return (MSR). That was a nearly 20% increase from what NASA projected last year needing for MSR in 2024.
Moreover, the budget proposal warned of more cost increases to come. “Mars Sample Return costs are expected to increase beyond what is shown in the outyear profile in this budget,” the proposal stated. That could mean cuts elsewhere in the science program, it warned.
What those costs are, though, aren’t clear. MSR has yet to go through its confirmation review, where NASA sets cost and schedule commitments. That review is scheduled for the fall, and for now agency officials are declining to offer overall cost estimates for the program. “I don’t think I’m in a position right now to give you cost data because we’re still working it through our processes,” Jeff Gramling, NASA MSR director, said during another town hall at the Lunar and Planetary Sciences Conference.
However, the expected increases are affecting other NASA science programs. In the 2024 budget request, NASA announced it would “pause” development of the Geospace Dynamics Constellation (GDC), a constellation of six satellites to study the interaction of the upper atmosphere with the magnetosphere and the sun, to compensate for increased MSR costs. NASA had already selected instruments for GDC in anticipation of a launch by 2029.
“This is the hardest decision I had to make,” said Nicola Fox, new associate administrator for science at NASA, during an agency town hall meeting March 20. Fox was previously director of NASA’s heliophysics division, which included GDC.
She committed to restarting work on the mission but didn’t say when that could happen. “We will assess what a pause looks like for that mission and get it back on track as soon as possible.”
Glaze offered similar commitments for VERITAS, noting the $1.5 million budget line was a placeholder added to the budget at the last minute, and that the delay in VERITAS had nothing to do with the costs of MSR. She said at the Space Studies Board meeting that she was waiting for a budget proposal from the VERITAS project to support a 2031 launch that would be incorporated into planning for the 2025 budget.
But Smrekar, speaking at the same Space Studies Board committee meeting, said she was still hoping to win funding to enable a 2029 launch of VERITAS, earliest date now possible. That would require $8 million in 2023 and $20 million in 2024.
A 2029 launch, she argued, would help minimize the total cost of the mission and better support two other Venus missions, NASA’s DAVINCI and ESA’s EnVision, launching by the early 2030s. But that requires getting the funding stripped from the mission in the 2024 budget proposal from elsewhere in the agency. “Honestly,” she acknowledged, “that seems to me to be the biggest hurdle.”
SPACE STATIONS PAST AND FUTURE
The fiscal year 2024 budget proposal contained little in the way of new initiatives. An exception to that was $180 million requested by NASA to start work on a deorbit tug for the International Space Station.
NASA’s earlier plans, including an ISS transition plan it published in early 2022, projected using Russian Progress spacecraft to perform a controlled deorbit of the station at the end of the decade, ensuring it reentered over an unpopulated region of the South Pacific. However, in August 2022, the agency issued a request for information to industry to gauge its capabilities to build a tug, saying it could provide “more robust capabilities” to deorbit the station.
“We’re always looking for redundancy,” Kathy Lueders, NASA associate administrator for space operations, said of the tug in a call with reporters about the 2024 budget proposal, noting that Progress spacecraft are still expected to be used to help deorbit the station. “We are also developing this U.S. capability as a way to have redundancy and be able to better aid the targeting of the vehicle and the safe return of the vehicle, especially as we’re adding more modules.”
The $180 million would “give us a healthy start” to work on the tug, she said, with a projected total cost approaching $1 billion depending on what industry proposes. “We’re hoping to get a better price than that.”
The same budget proposal includes $228.4 million for Commercial LEO Development (CLD), the program to support development of commercial space stations that succeed the ISS. That program received $224 million in 2023.
Some in industry have privately expressed disappointment with that, arguing NASA needs to accelerate its investment in CLD to ensure commercial stations are ready by the end of the decade. They also worry about the mixed message the budget proposal sends by proposing nearly as much money for a spacecraft to deorbit the ISS as it offers the station’s successors.
“That tells you, maybe, the relative importance and priority of trying to develop this tug for these geopolitical motivations and the potential role of the Russians in the future of the ISS,” Dreier said of the funding of the tug and CLD.
Deorbiting the station itself is a missed opportunity, some believe, seeing the ISS as a resource. “As technology matures, certainly in the next decade we’re going to get to the point where we’re going to be able to reuse and recycle a lot of these materials,” said Ron Lopez, president and managing director of Astroscale U.S., during a panel at the Satellite 2023 conference. “Instead of letting it burn up and lose all of that economic value, you take it to a foundry in space” and break it down into raw materials, he suggested.
NASA, though, has already ruled out either boosting the station into a higher storage orbit or somehow recycling it. Raising the station’s orbit would require dozens of cargo vehicles, while the station is too complex to repurpose modules safely. “Alternate concepts were evaluated and determined not to be feasible,” NASA said in a December presentation about its plans for a deorbit module.
The release of the budget proposal kicks off a long process of congressional hearings and markups of spending bills. That will be particularly difficult this year with split control of Congress: Democrats retained control of the Senate but Republicans are now in the majority in the House.
“There is peril ahead,” said Jean Toal Eisen, vice president of corporate strategy at the Association of Universities for Research in Astronomy and a former Senate appropriations staffer. That includes an ongoing debate about raising the debt ceiling that may spread into the appropriations process.
“There is a strong desire to cut discretionary spending, particularly domestic discretionary spending, on the part of many House Republicans,” she said. “That provides peril for NASA as a whole.”
NASA has outlined what a worst-case scenario would look like. In a March 19 letter to Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, Nelson said that cutting overall federal spending to 2022 levels, but limiting the cuts to domestic discretionary programs like NASA as some in the House have suggested, would force the agency to slash its budget by 22% from 2023 levels.
Such a cut “would have devastating and potentially unrecoverable impacts upon the objectives that the President and Congress have set for NASA,” Nelson warned in the letter. That would include delaying or canceling several science missions, including Mars Sample Return and the Earth System Observatory program, as well as deferring lunar missions beyond Artemis 4 and laying off 4,000 personnel.
Even if that scenario is unlikely, the agency is going into a different appropriations environment. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), long a dominant force on the Senate Appropriations Committee who looked out for interests at NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, has retired. Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), who had been the ranking member on the House appropriations subcommittee that funded NASA, chose to become chairman of another subcommittee this year.
None of the top members of the House or Senate appropriations committees have NASA centers in their districts or states; the closest is Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), chair of the House Appropriations Committee, but her Fort Worth-area district is far from Houston’s Johnson Space Center.
“NASA has enjoyed an unprecedented, steady growth in appropriations since 2013,” Dreier noted. “That’s what I’m not sure about going forward without that parochial state-level interest.”
There are some smaller parochial interests. The University of New Hampshire is involved with many of NASA’s heliophysics missions, which leads Toal Eisen to believe that the proposed cut in heliophysics, including pausing GDC, will not go over well with Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-N.H.), chair of the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA.
“It is not smart to do things like cut the thing that you think is the chair’s highest priority,” she said. “They’re just going to put that back in and take the money from something that you cared about.”
Despite the congressional uncertainties, NASA remains upbeat about the proposal. “I think it really shows the faith that the administration in what NASA is doing and where we’re going,” NASA Associate Administrator Bob Cabana said during a talk at the National Academies’ Space Science Week event March 28.
But securing that budget and its 7% increase is key for the agency’s future. “NASA cannot execute this successful program absent a 7% minimum increase,” Dreier said. “Anything less and you’re going to have serious downstream consequences.”
This article originally appeared in the April 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.