WASHINGTON — Senate appropriators want NASA to select a second company for its program to develop crewed lunar landers, but provided the agency with only a small increase in funding to support that.
The Senate Appropriations Committee released Oct. 18 drafts of its versions of nine appropriations bills for fiscal year 2022, including commerce, justice and science, which funds NASA. That bill offers $24.83 billion for NASA overall, slightly above the administration’s request of $24.8 billion but less than the $25.04 billion in a House bill.
The strongest language in the NASA section of the report accompanying the bill is regarding the Human Landing System (HLS) program. Appropriators rejected claims that the program is underfunded, noting that, last year, the agency predicted that it would need nearly $4.4 billion for the program in fiscal year 2022 but only requested $1.195 billion.
“Given that request, NASA’s rhetoric of blaming Congress and this Committee for the lack of resources needed to support two HLS teams rings hollow,” the report states.
The committee increased funding for HLS by $100 million, to $1.295 billion. “The Committee believes having at least two teams providing services using the Gateway should be the end goal of the current development program,” it stated in the report. “Using this funding, NASA is expected to ensure redundancy and competition, including robust support for research, development, testing, and evaluation for no fewer than two HLS teams.”
The report would also direct NASA to deliver a plan to Congress within 30 days of the bill’s enactment into law about how it will support two HLS teams, including budget projections for the program for fiscal years 2023 through 2026. “NASA is expected to request such resources in future year budgets.”
NASA has struggled to win additional funding it says is needed for the HLS program to support two landers. The House version of the fiscal year 2022 appropriations bill added $150 million to the HLS program and expressed concern about NASA’s decision to make a single HLS award, but did not specifically direct NASA to select a second company. NASA also sought more than $5 billion for HLS in the $3.5 trillion budget reconciliation package, but the House version of that bill included nothing for HLS.
Despite those setbacks, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said recently he was still confident that the agency would ultimately secure the funding it needed for HLS. “I think at the end of the day, after all the shouting is over, after all the pushing and tugging, a lot of which has nothing to do with NASA, you will see that NASA will have the funds that it needs,” he said in a Sept. 30 interview.
The Senate bill did provide some good news for NASA. The committee fully funded NASA’s low Earth orbit commercialization initiative, for which NASA sought $101.1 million in 2022. In the last two years, Congress provided only about one-tenth of the agency’s request for that effort, which is intended to support development of commercial successors to the International Space Station.
“After several years, NASA has finally provided the Committee with a rationale for this funding and a roadmap that seeks to ensure continued NASA access to LEO on new, commercial, free-flying platforms,” Senate appropriators said in the report.
The Senate bill closely tracks much of the agency’s original request in other areas. One loser is space technology, which would get $1.25 billion, $175 million less than requested but still an increase over the $1.1 billion it received in fiscal year 2021. The report sets aside funding in the bill for the OSAM-1 satellite servicing mission and nuclear propulsion, but doesn’t spell out cuts in other areas.
The bill and report are also silent on the fate of NASA’s Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), an airborne observatory that NASA sought to cancel in its fiscal year 2022 budget proposal. The House bill restored funding for SOFIA, but the Senate bill and report made no mention of the program.
It’s unclear if Senate appropriators will mark up these bills at the subcommittee or full committee level. The bills will, at a minimum, serve as a starting point for negotiations with the House on a final spending package later this year.