Mixed reaction to NASA budget proposal in Congress and industry

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WASHINGTON — NASA’s fiscal year 2021 budget proposal has gotten a mixed reception on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, with many supporting increased funding for exploration efforts but criticizing another attempt to cut science and education programs.

That budget proposal, released Feb. 10, calls for a 12% increase in overall NASA funding to $25.246 billion. Much of that increase would go to Artemis program projects like a lunar lander and related technologies needed to enable a human landing on the moon by 2024.

“I’m glad to see an increase in the budget,” said Rep. Kendra Horn (D-Okla.), chair of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, during a panel discussion at the Space Foundation’s “State of Space” event here Feb. 11.

She criticized, though, proposed cuts in the bill. For the fourth year in a row, the budget seeks to cancel the CLARREO Pathfinder and PACE Earth science missions as well as close NASA’s Office of STEM Engagement, formerly known as the Office of Education. For the third year in a row, the budget proposes cancelling the WIFRST astrophysics flagship mission.

She warned that NASA’s exploration plans can’t succeed “without a new generation of engineers and rocket scientists” created, in part, by NASA’s education efforts.

“We also have to make sure that NASA, as a multi-mission agency, has the resources it needs and a balanced portfolio,” she added. “So I’m concerned to see some of the critical science missions being zeroed out.”

Her support for that increase in the exploration budget is tempered by a lack of details about exactly how NASA will carry out that program. “We’re still waiting for a detailed plan from NASA. That’s something that’s required. You can’t do space by the seat of your pants,” she said. Such a plan, she said, would include more technical details and a justification for one specific approach over alternatives.

The increase in funding in the bill, Horn suggested, may not be sufficient to enable a 2024 landing as NASA plans. “According to some of the testimony that NASA has given before our committee, they said they were going to need $5 to 6 billion a year more to do that, and a 12% increase doesn’t get us there,” she said.

Her comments echoed those by a key senator. “While it is encouraging to see a proposed budget that supports returning American astronauts to the Moon, I remain eager to receive sufficient budget details to match our ambitious human exploration goals,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.) in a Feb. 10 statement. Moran chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee’s commerce, justice and science subcommittee, which funds NASA.

“In addition, I am disappointed the budget would cut STEM education, which plays a vital role in making certain we have the talent to achieve our mission,” he added, stating he looked forward to getting more details about NASA’s exploration programs in the budget.

An industry group, the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, balanced its support for increased spending on NASA exploration programs with concerns about cuts to science and education efforts.

“We are pleased to see the top line increase in the President’s FY 2021 budget request and applaud the administration on its commitment to the Artemis program,” Mary Lynne Dittmar, president and chief executive officer of the coalition, said in the statement. “While we recognize the tough decisions that are needed to set and meet priorities, we support a robust STEM program at NASA. America, and NASA’s moon-to-Mars effort, needs our next generation of scientists, researchers, and engineers.”

Another industry group, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, did not address proposed cuts in science or education programs in a Feb. 12 statement that “commends” the overall NASA budget proposal, saying that it “outlines an ambitious national space program and recognizes public-private partnerships as fundamental to achieving these challenging goals across NASA’s portfolio.”

Many in industry expect that House and Senate appropriators will reject some, if not all, the proposed terminations, as they did in prior years. “The president’s proposal is usually a starting point,” said Rep. Doug Lamborn (R-Colo.) on the State of Space panel. “Presidents of both parties, I think, have a frustration of not seeing their budget enacted as they proposed it to Congress. It’s a starting point. A lot remains to be seen.”