NASA spending bill clears House subcommittee

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WASHINGTON — A House appropriations subcommittee approved a spending bill May 17 that provides NASA with more than $22.3 billion but largely ignores an administration request for an additional $1.6 billion to support plans for a 2024 human return to the moon.

The commerce, justice and science (CJS) subcommittee approved a spending bill for fiscal year 2020 on a voice vote during a brief markup session. Members made no changes to the bill, which it introduced one day earlier.

That bill provides $22.32 billion for NASA in 2020, nearly $1.3 billion above the administration’s original request submitted in March. The bill, though, doesn’t include the $1.6 billion in additional funding for exploration programs requested May 13. While the bill includes several hundred million dollars more for the Space Launch System, Orion and ground systems, it cuts $618 million from the originally requested $1.58 billion for exploration research and development, which funds work on lunar landers and the lunar Gateway.

During the half-hour markup session, members only briefly mentioned the NASA provisions in the overall bill, which provides funding for the Departments of Commerce and Justice as well as the National Science Foundation. When they did, they often mentioned other aspects of the bill.

“The bill provides just over two billion [dollars] for NASA Earth science, a significant increase over fiscal year 2019,” Rep. José Serrano (D-N.Y.), chairman of the subcommittee, said in his opening remarks. NASA’s Earth science programs, whose spending is not specifically mentioned in the bill, received $1.93 billion in fiscal year 2019 while the administration’s request for 2020 sought a cut of nearly eight percent to $1.78 billion.

Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), the ranking member of the subcommittee, noted that the bill included $125 million for nuclear thermal propulsion work as part of NASA’s space technology programs. “The bill’s investment in nuclear thermal propulsion is critical as NASA works towards the design of a flight demonstration by 2024,” he noted. That work is led by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center, near Aderholt’s district.

Aderholt also praised the bill for including funding to support work on the SLS and its Exploration Upper Stage. However, in comments that came the closest to addressing the administration’s budget amendment, he said the bill “does not fulfill the $1.2 billion request for NASA for the purpose of establishing a permanent U.S. presence on and around the moon within the next decade.” The administration’s amendment sought $1.6 billion to enable a human lunar landing in five years.

Rep. Kay Granger (R-Texas), ranking member of the full appropriations committee, also noted a lack of funding in the bill for a Europa lander mission. The missing funding, she said, “could undermine prior investments Congress and the science community have made for the planned mission to Jupiter.”

Such a lander had been a priority for former Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), who chaired the CJS subcommittee in the prior two Congresses but lost reelection last November. In previous appropriations bills he included language in the bill itself, rather than in an accompanying report, appropriating funding for both Europa Clipper and the follow-on lander. He also included language directing the use of the Space Launch System for both missions and setting launch dates for them.

NASA, as in prior years, sought no funding for a Europa lander mission in its 2020 request, noting that a midterm report published last year for the planetary science decadal survey concluded that the mission should be considered “in the context of other planetary priorities in the next decadal survey.” It did request $592.6 million for Europa Clipper, planning a 2023 launch of the mission on a commercial launch vehicle rather than SLS.

The bill includes than $592.6 million for Europa Clipper, but as Granger noted did not specify any funding for a follow-on lander mission. However, the bill retained language from the final fiscal year 2019 appropriations bill requiring the use of SLS for both missions, setting a 2023 launch date for Clipper and 2025 for the lander.

The CJS spending bill is scheduled to be marked up by the full House Appropriations Committee May 22.