WASHINGTON — Congressional appropriators have released a final fiscal year 2024 spending bill that cuts NASA funding from what the agency received in 2023 while deferring a decision on spending for Mars Sample Return (MSR).

House and Senate appropriators released March 3 the bill text and report language for 6 of 12 appropriations bills for fiscal year 2024, including the commerce, justice and science (CJS) spending bill that funds NASA. Congress is expected to pass the bills before the continuing resolution funding the agencies covered by the bill expires March 8.

The bill provides $24.875 billion for NASA, 2% less than what the agency received in 2023 and 8.5% less than the $27.185 billion NASA requested for 2024. The final figure is also below the levels in the separate House and Senate bills of $25.367 billion and $25 billion, respectively.

On MSR, where the House and Senate offered vastly different figures, the final bill instead gives NASA flexibility. Uncertainty about spending on the program prompted NASA to reduce spending on MSR in November while under a continuing resolution, and that extended uncertainty led the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the lead center for MSR, to lay off 8% of its staff in February.

In the report accompanying the bill, appropriators noted NASA is reassessing the architecture of MSR through a group called the MSR Independent Review Board Response Team, or MIRT. “The agreement directs NASA to report no later than 60 days following completion of the MIRT report on the recommended path forward for MSR, within a balanced Science portfolio,” the report stated, including a year-by-year funding profile for MSR.

The report directs NASA to spend no less than $300 million, the amount in the Senate bill, on MSR, and up to the request of $949.3 million, the amount in the House bill. It also directs NASA to not lay off any more people in the MSR program until the agency provides Congress with the report on the future of MSR.

The report also includes $227 million for the On-Orbit Servicing, Assembly and Manufacturing (OSAM) 1 mission, a satellite servicing technology demonstration mission that NASA announced March 1 it planned to cancel. It is unclear if appropriators were aware of NASA’s intent to cancel OSAM-1 when it drafted the report, but it does recommend a continuation review in September 2024 is NASA is unable to keep the mission on cost and budget by removing “non-essential capabilities.”

The final report in many cases adopted language from the report from the Senate bill that appropriators approved in July. That included NASA’s request for $228.4 million for its Commercial Low Earth Orbit Destinations program to support development of commercial successors to the International Space Station. That report also expressed its support for development of an ISS deorbit vehicle, but did not specify funding for it. NASA had requested $180 million for the deorbit vehicle in its request.

The report directs NASA to fund the Space Launch System and Orion programs at their 2023 levels of $2.6 billion and $1.339 billion, respectively, slightly more than what NASA requested for 2024. The report also includes full funding of $1.88 billion for the Human Landing System (HLS) program “to meet all contractual obligations for both HLS providers in fiscal year 2024.”

In science, the bill provides NASA’s heliophysics division with $805 million, the amount it received in 2023 and about $55 million more than the request. It also directs NASA to provide a plan for launching a major heliophysics mission, the Geospace Dynamics Constellation, by the end of the decade after NASA planned to postpone the mission. Similarly, the report requests NASA seek sufficient funding for the VERITAS Venus mission, delayed into the early 2030s because of budget pressures and limited resources at JPL, to enable a launch by the end of the decade.

The final bill provides significant funding for nuclear propulsion work in the agency’s space technology directorate, with $110 million for nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) and $50 million for nuclear electric propulsion. The NTP funding includes $10 million to accelerate development of an operational NTP system with commercial partners concurrent with the DRACO project that NASA is cooperating with DARPA on.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...