Revised budget reconciliation package reduces NASA infrastructure funds

by

Updated 1:00 p.m. Eastern with comments by Bill Nelson at NASA briefing.

DUBAI, U.A.E. — A new, scaled-back version of a spending package released Oct. 28 sharply reduced the money allocated to NASA infrastructure and climate change projects, while continuing to exclude funding for a second Artemis lunar lander.

The House released the text of the Build Back Better Act, a $1.75 trillion spending bill that is a revised version of an original $3.5 trillion bill often known as the budget reconciliation package because of the process by which it would be used to win passage in the Senate. The bill’s release came hours after President Joe Biden announced the revised proposal in a speech at the White House.

The bill includes $750 million for upgrades to NASA infrastructure, $140 million for Earth science research and applications, and $220 million for NASA’s aeronautics program. By contrast, a portion of the original bill approved by the House Science Committee Sept. 9 included $4 billion for NASA infrastructure, $163 million for Earth science and $225 million for aeronautics. That earlier bill also included $7 million for NASA cybersecurity.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson had lobbied since the spring for more than $5 billion in infrastructure funding to repair agency facilities, including those damaged by hurricanes. A continuing resolution (CR) passed Sept. 30, funding the federal government through Dec. 3, included $321.4 mission for repairs to NASA’s Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans and Stennis Space Center in Mississippi.

In a call with reporters Oct. 29 about the upcoming Crew-3 commercial crew mission, Nelson said the combination of that CR funding as well as what is in the revised reconciliation package would give NASA close to $1.5 billion in additional funding. “That is a considerable positive,” he said. “A billion and a half dollars to the good? I think that’s pretty good for NASA.”

The revised Build Back Better Act, like earlier versions of the budget reconciliation package, included nothing for the future development of lunar landers for the Artemis program. Nelson sought $5.4 billion in the reconciliation package in the spring so the agency could fund future lunar lander service procurements through its Lunar Exploration Transportation Services program.

Nelson said in the call that the “big plus-up,” or increase, in funding for the lander program comes in fiscal year 2023. “That is what we have been working with the Office of Management and Budget on the president’s next budget, and, by the way, with both houses of the Congress, to get the plus-ups there that we need,” he said. The fiscal year 2023 budget proposal will be released in February 2022.

Some in Congress have pushed NASA to select a second lander in addition to its award to SpaceX. Language in the report accompanying the Senate version of a commerce, justice and science appropriations bill for fiscal year 2022, released Oct. 18, directed NASA to use the $1.295 billion provided for the Human Landing System to “ensure redundancy and competition, including robust support for research, development, testing, and evaluation for no fewer than two HLS teams.”

A mandate to support two providers, but with little additional funding, puts pressure on the program. “We really want competition for as long as it’s practical,” NASA Deputy Administrator Pam Melroy said in an Oct. 26 interview during the 72nd International Astronautical Congress here. She cited her experience at DARPA, where projects sought to maintain competition for as long as resources allowed.

“But, at some point, you’re going to end up downselecting,” she said. “I think we just need to continue to work with our stakeholders on that.”