WASHINGTON — As NASA faces both short-term and long-term uncertainty about its funding, the agency is turning to its most powerful advocates: its astronauts.
The four members of the Artemis 2 crew, named in April, were in Washington last week, spending parts of two days meeting with members of Congress. The three Americans and one Canadian assigned to the mission, slated to be the first crew flight to go to the moon in more than half a century, reported a warm reception from their meetings.
“This has taken decades of their leadership, bipartisan leadership to get us to where we are today,” Reid Wiseman, commander of Artemis 2, said during a briefing May 17 at the Canadian Embassy after one day of meetings. “That was really our message, thanks for a couple of decades of great leadership and thanks for the decades to come to keep Artemis going.”
“Folks are cheering us on and telling us how they’re going to support us and they’re going to make sure that we can keep doing the things that we’re doing,” said Victor Glover, pilot of Artemis 2, during a May 18 press conference outside the Capitol. “They know how important the decisions and the debates that are happening right now are to the future sustainability of that vision and execution of that vision.”
Those decisions and debates revolve around concerns about potential across-the-board spending cuts in the next fiscal year. Congressional leaders are continuing negotiations with the White House on a spending deal that could involve cuts sought by the Republican leadership in the House in exchange for agreeing to increase the debt ceiling. Those discussions face a June 1 deadline to avoid a government default.
NASA Administrator Bill Nelson previously warned that the most severe cuts could jeopardize the ability of the agency to carry out future Artemis missions along with other NASA priorities. Nelson, in a March 19 letter to the ranking member of the House Appropriations Committee, said a potential 22% cut “would have devastating and potentially unrecoverable impacts” on the agency and would force NASA to “significantly restructure or terminate” elements of Artemis, including missions beyond Artemis 4.
Nelson has reiterated those concerns in the weeks since, including at the Capitol Hill event, expressing hopes for both a resolution of the debt ceiling debate and avoiding a long-term continuing resolution (CR) when the new fiscal year starts Oct. 1. “The kinds of cuts that you have seen talked about would be devastating to NASA, to our programs and, indeed, this… crew that is taking us back to the moon after half a century,” he cautioned.
Speaking to the human exploration and operations committee of the NASA Advisory Council May 15, Jim Free, NASA associate administrator for exploration systems development, noted the challenges of starting a fiscal year on a CR.
“If we’re trying to grow our budget to launch more stuff and we’re on a CR, it’s our budget from last year, so we can’t grow,” he said. “We can’t start new programs under a CR without an exception.”
There are issues beyond 2024 as well. The 2024 budget proposal projected spending on exploration programs to increase from nearly $8 billion sought in 2024 to more than $8.6 billion in 2028. That increase comes from increases in work on Artemis lunar landers and other lunar capabilities, as spending on Orion and the Space Launch System is flat or declines.
“We do have that increasing budget that you see over the five-year horizon,” Free said of the budget at the committee meeting. “If we’re going to fly every year, we need the budget to do that.”
He hedged, though, when asked if that request was sufficient. “There’s always going to be differences” between NASA’s own plans and the administration’s request, he said. “I don’t think we’ll ever get all the dollars we think we need, but our job is to implement what the president would like to put forward and then whatever Congress eventually appropriates for it.”
“A lot of the program managers are here in the room,” he added, “and I’m sure they’d tell you they need more than this to execute.”
He praised what Nelson, a former senator, did to secure most of what NASA requested in fiscal year 2023. “He definitely went to bat for the agency.”
The agency also has on Capitol Hill former astronaut Sen. Mark Kelly (D-Ariz.). While Kelly does not serve on committees that either fund or authorize NASA, he said at the May 18 press conference he does “get a lot of questions” from his colleagues on space topics, illustrating varying levels of expertise.
“My experience is that they’ve been incredibly supportive,” he said of fellow members of Congress, arguing that the agency still had broad bipartisan support. “NASA is the Dolly Parton of government agencies. Everybody loves Dolly Parton.”