WASHINGTON — As the fiscal year 2020 appropriations process approaches its endgame, NASA leadership says it will find ways to keep efforts to return humans to the moon by 2024 on track even if the agency doesn’t get all the funding it’s requested.
Leaders of the appropriations committees in the House and Senate announced Dec. 12 what they called an agreement “in principle” on passing appropriations bills to fund the federal government through the rest of the 2020 fiscal year. The government is currently operating on a continuing resolution (CR), funding agencies at 2019 levels through Dec. 20.
The announcement offered few specifics about funding levels or even how the bills would be structured. There are 12 separate appropriations bills, such as the commerce, justice and science bill that includes funding for NASA; they could be bundled into a single omnibus spending measure or two or more smaller “minibus” bills.
NASA’s original fiscal year 2020 budget proposal sought $21 billion for the agency, and the administration followed that with an amendment requested an additional $1.6 billion in order to support the 2024 lunar return goal announced after the release of the original proposal. A House bill provided $22.3 billion for NASA, while a Senate bill funded the agency at $22.75 billion.
While the overall, or topline, amounts between the budget proposal and congressional bills are similar, how the funding is allocated is not. Notably, the House did not include $1 billion in additional funding for work on a human lunar lander included in the budget amendment, while the Senate bill provided less than $750 million in funding for that program.
At a Dec. 10 interview during the third annual SpaceNews Awards for Excellence & Innovation, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine was optimistic that some kind of appropriations bill would be passed before the CR expires Dec. 20.
“I’ve heard good things about an appropriations bill,” he said, declining to go into what he called “rumors” about its contents. “If it doesn’t happen, we’re not going to stop because we have to get to the moon by 2024.”
Bridenstine said there were contingency plans should Congress instead pass a short- or long-term CR. Such resolutions typically prevent the start of new programs unless explicitly authorized in the bill.
“There are ways we can continue moving forward,” he said. He noted that the Human Landing System program, which would fund development of human-rated lunar landers, is part of the Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships, or NextSTEP, program, which has existed for several years. “It’s not a new start. We can actually continue funding activities for human landing systems.”
He also suggested the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program could be used to support lunar lander development. That program funds the delivery of research payloads to the lunar surface on commercially developed lunar landers, but if needed could be reshaped into backing work on human lunar landers.
“Nothing says those payloads can’t be humans,” he said. “So there’s another mechanism by which we can find resources to continue moving forward.” He added that the agency’s Centennial Challenges prize program, part of the Space Technology Mission Directorate, could also be pressed into service to support Artemis.
How those programs could be adapted to support Artemis was something that would have to be carefully studied, Bridenstine acknowledged. “I’ve got to talk to the lawyers about what we can do without me going to jail.”
“We’ve got to look at creative ways where we can keep moving forward, even in this politically charged environment,” he said.
Bridenstine also said NASA would have to “get more creative” if it does get a full-fledged appropriations bill, but one that falls short of the $1.6 billion in additional funding for Artemis. “We have knobs that we can turn,” he said, but suggested reduced funding would also reduce the chances of making the 2024 date. “The $1.6 billion gives us the most opportunity to have the highest probability of success, but there are other things we can do and be creative and maintain the momentum even while we have temporary constraints.”
The person who will be making many of the decisions about what knobs to turn agreed. “I refuse to go ahead and use funding as a crutch for not making it to the moon by 2024,” said Doug Loverro, the new NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, in the same interview. “I refuse to allow that to become a thing.”
Loverro said it was his job to figure out how to achieve the 2024 goal with funding as just one of several obstacles. “I don’t complain about gravity. I don’t complain about the radiation belts. I don’t complain about all the other obstacles standing between me and the moon,” he said. “Funding is no different from one of those obstacles.”
That obstacle, he added, won’t go away after the 2020 appropriations cycle is completed. “We are not going to get funded for every dollar that we look for every year between now and ’24. We know that’s not going to happen,” he said. “There are creative things we can do to go ahead and both spur industry to rise to the occasion, and there’s many tools in the budget process we can use to continue to make progress.”