ORLANDO — Despite its successes last year, the leadership of NASA warns that the coming year could be more challenging as it fights to preserve its budget on Capitol Hill.
Speaking at the SpaceCom conference here Feb. 22, Bob Cabana, NASA associate administrator, said securing funding to support future Artemis missions and other agency priorities may be difficult given proposals in Congress to reduce overall federal spending.
“I think this year is going to be even more challenging for us” than 2022, he said, citing “what we have to accomplish in order to set our course for the future and ensure that we are successful.”
NASA got nearly $25.4 billion in the fiscal year 2023 omnibus spending bill enacted in December, an increase of 5.6% from the $24 billion it received in 2022. Cabana called that increase “outstanding” but cautioned, “I think we’re going to have some challenges.”
Those difficulties, said Alicia Brown, associate administrator for NASA’s office of legislative and intergovernmental affairs, come from proposals by the new Republican leadership in the House to cut spending for fiscal year 2024, such as going back to fiscal year 2022 levels.
“It is going to be a tough couple of years for us,” she said at SpaceCom, citing those budget-cutting proposals. “We’re concerned about how it affects human spaceflight and Artemis, but it’s going to affect all of our programs.”
She said NASA was particularly worried about how it would affect later missions in the Artemis program. “What we can do right now in this fiscal year is ensure that there is not a big gap between Artemis 3, our first landing, and Artemis 4, our first Gateway mission.”
NASA’s current plans envision Artemis 3 launching as soon as 2025, followed by Artemis 4 in 2027. Those schedules depend on the development of several new or upgraded capabilities, including SpaceX’s Starship lunar lander for Artemis 3 and, for Artemis 4, both the first Gateway elements as well as the Block 1B version of the Space Launch System.
“We, and hopefully our partners, are going to spend a lot of time on the Hill talking about why it’s important, maybe in the context of what countries like China are doing, and why Congress needs to make those investments now in us to ensure that we’ve got a strong, steady cadence of lunar landings,” Brown said.
NASA, in its fiscal year 2023 budget proposal, requested $26 billion in 2023. That proposal included a projected budget of $26.5 billion in 2024, increasing to $28.1 billion in 2027. The White House is expected to release its fiscal year 2024 budget proposal March 9.
Cabana and Brown said they are closely watching developments regarding regulation of the commercial space industry. While NASA is not a regulator, it is increasingly relying on industry for many capabilities, including transporting astronauts and, eventually, using commercial space stations.
“Commercial LEO destinations, I think, is going to be a huge challenge,” Cabana said. He cited NASA’s work with Axiom Space on private astronaut missions to the International Space Station as a way to learn how to work commercial partners on space stations.
Those proposed stations face their own challenges in regulatory oversight, with no agency having clear authority to regulate them and provide the authorization and continuing supervision required by the Outer Space Treaty.
“It’s going to be an interesting year in D.C. for commercial space setting up the regulatory framework going forward,” Brown said. One near-term milestone is the impending expiration of current restrictions on the Federal Aviation Administration to enact safety regulations for spaceflight participants, a “learning period” that has been in place since 2004 and extended several times.
“That’s a big thing that the FAA and Congress are looking at,” she said. “It has ripple effects throughout industry.”
While the FAA can’t currently regulate safety of commercial spaceflight participants, NASA does have the ability to impose requirements on companies flying NASA astronauts and supporting the ISS. Cabana suggested those have become de facto regulations for non-NASA commercial space activities.
“When they are off on their own, NASA doesn’t have anything to do with that,” he said of such missions. “But when you look at how SpaceX operates those missions, they follow the same procedures that NASA has helped them put into place for our missions.”
“I think we’re laying the groundwork on what needs to get done, and as we license, eventually, these commercial LEO destinations, we’ll see what comes out from a regulatory point of view,” he continued. “There’s a lot of work that’s going to need to get done between now and then.”
Those stations will also need some kind of “mission authorization” to comply with the Outer Space Treaty that the National Space Council is currently studying. In a separate presentation at SpaceCom, Richard DalBello, director of the Office of Space Commerce, said he expects a proposal for mission authorization to soon emerge from that effort. “I think they’re pretty close to wrapping it up.”
He said he supported a “light touch” regulatory approach to avoid burdening companies and emerging new space markets. “The first thing we do hear from industry is, be careful with what you do with regulation,” he said, promoting an approach to provide the minimum regulations needed for safety and upholding international obligations. “We are mindful of that.”
The White House mission authorization proposal that emerges from the ongoing effort will not be the end of the process. “There will be a broader dialog with Congress on this,” he said, providing legal authorities and other requirements. “Ultimately, they will play a key role in all of this.”