Several times during the Trump administration, the White House declared it was “infrastructure week” as it sought to drum up support for transportation and other infrastructure investments. The efforts went nowhere and eventually became a running joke in political circles.
Infrastructure week has long since been retired by the White House, but a version lives on at NASA. Space agency officials have recently warned of decaying infrastructure threatening its ability to carry out missions, but it’s unclear if Congress or the administration is taking it seriously.
At an Aug. 17 meeting of a National Academies committee, one official described a mounting backlog of deferred maintenance on facilities at NASA centers. “The majority of our facilities are beyond their design lives, and we have flat or declining budgets,” said Erik Weiser, director of NASA’s facilities and real estate division.
He said agency cost models estimated the maintenance gap at more than $250 million annually and growing. At the same time, construction spending has been lagging: he noted best practices call for spending 3% of an agency’s overall budget on construction, but NASA is spending only about 1.7%, deferring 78 projects over the last four years.
“All that does is increase the risk on the maintenance side because a lot of those projects that were deferred were maintenance projects,” he said, which ultimately could add risk to NASA’s ability to carry out key missions.
Weiser explained that NASA is taking steps to try to prioritize spending better, including identifying facilities that can either be demolished or leased to private sector users, as well as doing “tiered maintenance” by giving the most funding to the most important facilities. “We’re at a point where we can’t do what we’ve been doing for the past decade-plus. It’s not sustainable,” he said. “We’re trying to right-size the infrastructure.”
There are similar concerns about a very specific piece of NASA infrastructure: the Deep Space Network (DSN). That array of antennas, located at three sites in Australia, California and Spain, communicate with missions from cislunar space to the edge of the solar system.
The DSN is facing two problems. One is that demand is growing, in part because of Artemis but also from other deep space missions. “The load is increasing, and it’s very stressful to us,” said Suzanne Dodd, director of the interplanetary network directorate at JPL, at an Aug. 29 NASA Advisory Council’s science committee meeting.
At the same time, the DSN budget is decreasing, from $250 million a year in 2010 to $200 million today, a trend that will continue for the foreseeable future. “Looking out to the 2030s, that really scares us on the DSN,” she said.
Solutions to that growing demand include new DSN antennas and a separate network devoted to lunar missions. At the meeting, officials and committee members estimated those projects would cost roughly $100 million annually.
However, there’s no sign the money will be forthcoming. “Infrastructure in general is just not invested in,” said Philip Baldwin, acting director of the network services division of NASA’s Space Communications and Navigation program.
That’s particularly true for the 2024 fiscal year, where the debt ceiling deal will keep non-defense discretionary spending flat. “I don’t foresee any additional funding coming” for the DSN in 2024, he told the committee.
The House and Senate have already cut back the agency’s request for construction spending. NASA sought $453.7 million for that account, but a Senate bill would provide $379 million while the House only $247.9 million.
Two years ago, when the Biden administration proposed its Build Back Better Act — a response to the previous administration’s infrastructure week — NASA Administrator Bill Nelson lobbied for $5 billion to repair infrastructure at NASA centers. “There’s aging infrastructure that is dilapidated” across the agency, he told Congress then.
That request did not survive the many twists and turns that ended with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. But there’s always next infrastructure week.
This article originally appeared in the September 2023 issue of SpaceNews magazine.