NASA warns budget uncertainty could slow exploration programs

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GREENBELT, Md. — A NASA official warned that extended delays in finalizing a fiscal year 2020 budget for the agency could have implications for its ability to stay on schedule for returning humans to the moon in 2024.

In a speech at a Maryland Space Business Roundtable luncheon here Nov. 12, Marshall Smith, director of human lunar exploration programs at NASA Headquarters, said the agency would continue work on efforts like evaluating proposals for human lunar landers, but actual awards of contracts could be hindered by the lack of a final spending bill to fund that work.

“We’ve done everything we can to have everything in place, and at some point we’re going to need to award contracts,” he said. “When we get to that point, there will be eventually implications to our launch dates if we can’t do that.”

Smith said after the speech that the agency was starting evaluation of proposals submitted for the Human Landing Systems program, which will fund development of human-rated lunar landers. Proposals were due to NASA Nov. 5, and Smith said the agency hopes to be able to award contracts for initial lander studies by January.

He declined to say how many proposals NASA received, citing an ongoing procurement blackout about program details. Both Boeing and an industry team lead by Blue Origin, which includes Draper, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, have announced they submitted proposals.

NASA, in an amendment to its fiscal year 2020 budget proposal submitted by the White House in May, sought $1 billion to start work on lunar landers. The House did not include any funding for that work in its commerce, justice and science (CJS) spending bill passed in June, while the Senate provided less than $750 million in its CJS spending bill approved Oct. 31.

The Senate funding in particular was criticized by the White House in an Oct. 23 letter from Russell Vought, acting director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB). Vought said the exploration research and development program at NASA, which includes lunar landers and the lunar Gateway, needed $700 million in additional funding in 2020 “to support the Administration’s goal of returning to the Moon by 2024.”

The agency, along with the rest of the federal government, is operating under a continuing resolution (CR) that funds programs at fiscal year 2019 levels through Nov. 21. With no agreement on overall spending allocations among the dozen appropriations bills, let alone resolving differences on individual bills, a second CR will be required. While early reports suggested that second CR could extend to February or March, it now appears it will last only to Dec. 20, giving appropriators an additional month to work out those differences.

Despite the budget uncertainty, Smith emphasized in his speech that NASA was still moving ahead quickly on the overall Artemis program, of which the lunar lander program is one of the last major elements. “Every part of what’s needed for 2024 is either on contract or about to be on contract,” he said.

To illustrate this program, he showed a slide that listed all the accomplishments in the program since Vice President Mike Pence’s March 26 speech directing NASA to land humans on the moon by 2024. Those accomplishments ranged from contract awards to hearings and briefings.

“We’ve been very, very busy,” he said. “We’ve done more in the last six months than what would have normally taken two years.”