WASHINGTON — The Senate passed a spending bill Oct. 31 that provides $22.75 billion for NASA in fiscal year 2020, but final agreement on funding for agency programs may still be weeks, if not months, away.
On an 84–9 vote, the Senate approved a so-called “minibus” appropriations bill that combined several separate measures, including the commerce, justice and science (CJS) bill that funds NASA, NOAA and the National Science Foundation, among other agencies. The minibus also included the transportation, housing and urban development bill, which funds the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation.
The final minibus included no major changes from the CJS bill that the Senate Appropriations Committee unanimously approved Sept. 26. That bill provided NASA with $22.75 billion, including most, but not all, of the $1.6 billion in additional funding for the Artemis lunar exploration program requested by the administration in a budget amendment in May.
“I’m especially pleased that this bill accelerates the goal of returning American astronauts to the moon and cements America’s leadership in space exploration,” Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), chairman of the CJS appropriations subcommittee, said in a statement marking the passage of the minibus.
In theory, this bill could now be reconciled with the CJS spending bill the House passed in June that provides $22.315 billion for NASA. Other issues are likely to delay that, including a lack of agreement between the House and Senate on budget allocations for all 12 spending bills. There are also debates on other controversial issues, such as funding for a border wall.
“While I am pleased the Senate has finally passed a package of appropriations bills, we face a pressing deadline of Nov. 21 and are still far behind in completing an orderly appropriations process,” said Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.), chair of the House Appropriations Committee, in an Oct. 31 statement about the passage of the minibus. “The critical next step is to complete negotiations on subcommittee allocations, allowing our subcommittee chairs to conference individual bills.”
Those issues make it likely that another continuing resolution (CR), or stopgap spending bill, will be needed when the current CR expires Nov. 21. Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said last week another CR could last to February or March because of delays expected by any impeachment proceedings against President Trump.
An extended CR could slow down aspects of Artemis, in particular an ongoing procurement to start development of human-rated lunar landers. There is also uncertainty about how many proposals NASA will be able to select for initial funding given the lack of agreement on spending for the program.
“If we stay in a CR, we have more and more risk the longer we’re in the CR without the additional funding,” Ken Bowersox, acting associate administrator for human exploration and operations at NASA, said during an Oct. 31 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council.
He argued that uncertainty increases the chances NASA won’t be able to meet the 2024 deadline set by the administration earlier this year. “My gut feel is, the longer we wait, the more risk we have, and at some point we move from 2024 into 2025,” he said. “2024 is already an aggressive date.”
He added, though, it was premature to say a 2024 landing isn’t possible until the budget numbers are finalized and the agency reviews proposals for lunar landers. “I don’t want to just give up on 2024 yet because I haven’t seen the proposals from our contractors,” he said. “I might have a contractor out there, or a commercial partner out there, that has a 2022 readiness date. They might be able to handle it.”