Senator seeks to restore proposed cuts in NASA science programs

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WASHINGTON — A U.S. senator said June 15 he will work with colleagues to restore cuts to several NASA programs in the agency’s fiscal year 2021 budget request, which would put more strain on NASA’s efforts to return humans to the moon by 2024.

In a webcast organized by the Maryland Space Business Roundtable, an industry organization, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) said he would work with fellow members of the state’s congressional delegation to seek “predictable funding” for programs involving centers and organizations in the state.

“We want to make sure the missions are protected. ‘Team Maryland’ is fighting very hard” on a range of missions, he said, including the James Webb Space Telescope, Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope (formerly WFIRST), the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) Earth science mission and the On-Orbit Servicing, Assembly and Manufacturing 1 (OSAM-1) mission, formerly known as Restore-L. All those missions involve the Goddard Space Flight Center, located in Maryland, and other organizations and companies in the state.

NASA’s fiscal year 2021 budget request sought once again to cancel PACE and the Roman Space Telescope, while OSAM-1 has been the target of budget cuts in the past. JWST may need additional funding beyond its request depending on the extent of the latest delays in the mission after NASA confirmed last week it will miss its March 2021 launch because of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic.

Congress has, in past years, restored funding for OSAM-1, PACE and Roman, and kept JWST fully funded. Cardin said he would seek to do the same this year. “We’re going to fight for those,” he said. “On behalf of the Maryland delegation, I have put in our request that those programs be funded at the level to carry its missions on time.”

Neither the House nor the Senate has formally started the fiscal year 2021 appropriations process because of delays caused by the pandemic. House and Senate leaders, though, have stated that they expect to start marking up spending bills by late June or early July, perhaps without specific hearings on the individual requests of many agencies, including NASA.

Cardin said the Senate appropriators would start work next week. Cardin is not a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee but Sen. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) does serve on the committee, including the commerce, justice and science subcommittee whose jurisdiction includes NASA.

NASA’s fiscal year 2021 budget request proposed increasing the agency’s overall budget by 12%, to $25.2 billion. However, it sought cuts to PACE, Roman and the SOFIA airborne observatory, as well as its education programs, to help pay for increases in its exploration programs. The budget proposal seeks to increase spending on exploration research and development efforts, which include the lunar landers needed for the Artemis program, by nearly $3.3 billion, more than the overall increase in agency spending.

Cardin, asked about Artemis and the 2024 goal, offered modest support. “I think Artemis is a perfect combination of a public-private partnership,” he said. “I’m very supportive of the program.”

Most of the major elements of the Artemis program, including the Space Launch System, Orion and ground systems, do not make use of public-private partnerships and instead use conventional contracts. The Human Landing System effort to develop lunar landers is the only major element that leverages such partnerships.

Cardin, in his comments on Artemis, also called for balance among agency programs, a theme of his overall remarks. “I want to make sure that we have balance,” he said. “As we deal with space exploration, which I strongly support, I want to make sure we do it recognizing that we must have adequate resources for the other critical missions at NASA, including the Earth sciences.”

Any effort to restore funding for those cut programs without further increasing NASA’s overall budget would make exploration programs a likely target for cuts, which in turn would jeopardize the agency’s ability to make the 2024 goal set last year by Vice President Mike Pence.

At a joint meeting June 9 of the National Academies’ Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board and the Space Studies Board, Ken Bowersox, at the time the acting associate administrator for human exploration and operations at NASA, acknowledged the budget pressures on the program.

“Truthfully, I think we’re going to need more if we’re going to get to 2024,” he said of funding for Artemis. In discussions with Congress, he said, “they indicate that it may be difficult to give us everything we’ve asked for.”

“I’m not going to say that it’s impossible to do 2024 if we don’t get what we asked for,” he continued. “We don’t want to give up on 2024 if we have any chance of making it, and right now we still think we have a chance with the resources we’ve got. But at some point, you just run out of room to reduce your program any more. I don’t think we’re there yet.”