House bill restores funding to Earth science and astrophysics missions

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ARCADIA, Calif. — House appropriators criticized NASA for seeking to cancel “legacy” science and education programs in favor of new exploration efforts, moving money back to those missions while remaining silent on the administration’s accelerated lunar return.

In the report accompanying its fiscal year 2020 commerce, justice and science (CJS) spending bill, released May 21, appropriators said they restored funding to several Earth science and astrophysics missions, and NASA’s education program, to counter their proposed cancellation by the administration. That bill will be marked up by the full House Appropriations Committee May 22.

“NASA’s initial fiscal year 2020 budget request, which is $481,000,000 less than the fiscal year 2019 appropriated level, clearly reflects the Administration’s unfortunate shift from legacy programs and programs with clear environmental and educational interests,” the report stated.

That shift “is most evident,” the report argued, in the large increase sought for development of the lunar Gateway as well as lunar landers and related systems. Those programs are part of the exploration research and development line in the budget, for which NASA sought $1.58 billion in its budget request. The House bill instead provides $962 million, about the same as 2019.

The House bill restores funding for two Earth science missions, the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) spacecraft and the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) Pathfinder. PACE would receive $147 million while CLARREO Pathfinder would get $26 million. Both missions had been proposed for cancellation in the budget requests for 2018 and 2019, only to have Congress restore their funding.

The bill also restores funding for the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), a flagship astrophysics mission that NASA sought to cancel in the 2020 budget proposal because of competing budget priorities. The bill would give WFIRST $510.7 million, close to the $542 million agency officials previously stated was needed to keep the program on track for a 2025 launch.

In planetary science, the report explains the mixed messages about a Europa lander mission contained in the bill released last week, which called for a 2025 launch of the mission but provided no funding. Appropriators stated in the report that the $195 million that proposed mission received in 2019 is sufficient to continue research and development work through 2020, hence no additional funding is offered. Appropriators, though, directed NASA to “include adequate funding for continued research and development of the Jupiter Europa Lander in the fiscal year 2021 budget request.”

The report, like the bill itself, is silent on the agency’s budget amendment released May 13 that asks for an additional $1.6 billion in 2020 to allow the agency to work towards a human return to the moon in 2024. Appropriators did request the Government Accountability Office to review the status of the Gateway and other large lunar initiatives as part of its annual review of major NASA programs.

However, there is some agreement between appropriators and the administration on the need for additional funding for the Space Launch System and Orion. The House bill provides more than $500 million in additional funding for those two programs, while the administration’s budget amendment seeks an additional $651 million for SLS and Orion.

That additional funding is needed, NASA says, to avoid further delays in their development. “It basically maintains SLS and Orion schedules where they are today,” Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said of the additional funding during a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council’s science committee May 21.

That schedule calls for a first SLS/Orion mission, now called Artemis-1, in late 2020 or early 2021, followed by the first crewed SLS/Orion mission, Artemis-2, in October or November 2022. Without the additional money, Gerstenmaier said, those missions “would have been spread out and later.”

One criticism of the budget amendment, voiced by some members of Congress, has been a lack of details about how much the overall plan to return humans to the lunar surface in 2024 will cost. At the committee meeting, Mark Sirangelo, special assistant to the NASA administrator who has taken the lead on exploration planning, said the agency does have such a cost estimate but isn’t ready to disclose it yet.

“NASA has obviously created one,” he said of a long-term budget profile. “It is still under discussion with the White House and OMB. At this point in time, we’re not talking about it.”

He added that the budget amendment was put together quickly. “We had a very limited window to put the amendment in,” he said, in order to meet a congressional deadline for submitting amendments to budget requests. “The emphasis was, what do we need right now to get the program started and also send a signal that this is a serious change? This amount of money is a serious amount of money.”