Astronauts on the moon
Countries that want to cooperate with NASA on the Artemis program may need to agree to follow "norms of behavior" for safe space operations as a condition for being a partner, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said May 5. Credit: NASA

Updated 1:20 p.m. with Commercial Spaceflight Federation comment.

WASHINGTON — A House appropriations bill released July 7 rejected the administration’s proposed major budget increase for NASA, instead offering the agency a flat budget for 2021 that takes particular aim at the agency’s efforts to develop lunar landers.

The commerce, justice and science (CJS) appropriations bill, to be marked up by the House appropriations CJS subcommittee July 8, would provide NASA with $22.629 billion in fiscal year 2021. That is the same amount the agency received in the final fiscal year 2020 appropriations bill, but significantly less than the $25.246 billion the administration requested in its budget proposal in February.

Appropriators targeted NASA’s Exploration R & D budget line for the biggest cuts. NASA sought $4.7 billion for the programs funded there, which include Human Landing System (HLS) effort to develop lunar landers for transporting astronauts to the lunar surface. The bill instead provides a little more than $1.5 billion, an increase of about $120 million from fiscal year 2020.

The bill does not break down spending for the various Exploration R & D programs. NASA received $600 million for HLS in fiscal year 2020 but sought more than $3.3 billion for the program in 2021. NASA argued that increase was necessary to keep the program on track to deliver landers in time to meet the 2024 goal set by the administration last year.

In a statement, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said the bill would provide $628.2 million for HLS, which he interpreted as a willingness to support the overall Artemis program and starting point for later budget negotiations.

“I want to thank the House Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee for the bipartisan support they have shown for NASA’s Artemis program. The $628.2 million in funding for the Human Landing System (HLS) is an important first step in this year’s appropriations process,” he said.

Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), whose members include some of the companies with HLS awards, offered a similar view. “The House’s proposed funding for the Human Landing System program is a key first step in the fiscal year 2021 appropriations process,” he said in a statement to SpaceNews. “CSF looks forward to continuing to work with Congress to fund the HLS program and commercial partnerships at a level that ensures NASA has the resources to land the first woman and next man on the moon by 2024.”

Other parts of the agency’s budget saw increases, particularly for programs targeted for cancellation in the budget proposal. NASA’s science programs would receive nearly $7.1 billion, almost the same as in 2020 and much higher than the $6.3 billion requested. The bill says little about funding for specific missions, but increases in Earth science and astrophysics would be consistent with restoring funding for the PACE and CLARREO Pathfinder Earth science missions and the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope, formerly WFIRST, which were again proposed for cancellation in the budget proposal.

The bill does direct $403.5 million for the Europa Clipper mission, the same amount as the agency requested. In a departure from past bills, which directed NASA to use the Space Launch System for the mission, it instead calls for using the vehicle “if available.” NASA has sought to launch Europa Clipper on a commercial vehicle, saying it would save money and free up SLS vehicles for Artemis missions.

The bill also increases funding for the SLS, offering $2.6 billion versus the $2.26 billion requested. The bill directs NASA to spend $400 million on the Exploration Upper Stage needed for the Block 1B version of SLS, whereas the budget proposal sought to defer work on that stage to focus on the initial Block 1 version the agency deemed sufficient for the initial phase of the Artemis program.

NASA’s space technology program would receive $1.1 billion, the same amount as 2020 but less than the nearly $1.58 billion requested. It directs $227 million of that funding to go to the On-orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing (OSAM) 1 mission, formerly Restore-L, versus the agency’s request of $133 million, and $110 million for nuclear thermal propulsion work.

The House bill also rejects the latest effort to shut down NASA’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Engagement, or education, program. The bill provides $126 million to STEM Engagement, which had been zeroed out in the fiscal year 2021 budget proposal.

The bill marks a starting point for the fiscal year 2021 appropriations process in Congress, which started late because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Senate has yet to start work on its version of spending bills. In past years, the most likely outcome is that the House and Senate agree to an omnibus spending bill, likely after the November general election. That would mean starting the 2021 fiscal year on Oct. 1 with a continuing resolution that funds agency programs at 2020 levels. Given the unprecedented nature of 2020, however, it’s not clear how applicable the experience of previous years is to this year’s appropriations process.

“We still have more to do, and I look forward to working with the Senate to ensure America has the resources to land the first woman and next man on the moon in 2024,” Bridenstine said in his statement about the House bill.

Fiscal year 2021 budget propsoal and House bill (amounts in millions of dollars)

AccountFY21 ProposalHouse CJSDifference
– Earth Science$1,768.1$2,021.8$253.7
– Planetary Science$2,659.6$2,713.4$53.8
– Astrophysics$1,245.7$1,729.2$483.5
– Heliophysics$633.0$633.1$0.1
SPACE TECHNOLOGY$1,578.3$1,100.0-$478.3
– Orion$1,400.5$1,400.5$0.0
– Space Launch System$2,257.1$2,600.0$342.9
– Exploration Ground Systems$384.7$459.7$75.0
– Exploration R&D$4,719.4$1,557.4-$3,162.0
SPACE OPERATIONS$4,187.3$4,052.2-$135.1
STEM ENGAGEMENT$0.0$126.0$126.0

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...