Stopgap funding bill could impair NASA’s lunar ambitions

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WASHINGTON — The prospect of another stopgap funding bill, one that could stretch well into next year, is raising concerns in industry it could slow down work on NASA’s Artemis program to return humans to the moon by 2024.

NASA, along with the rest of the federal government, is operating under a continuing resolution (CR) that funds programs at fiscal year 2019 levels. The CR, which started at the beginning of the 2020 fiscal year Oct. 1, runs through Nov. 21.

That CR was intended to give the Senate, which did not start on its appropriations bills until passage of a two-year budget deal over the summer, time to complete its bills and then reconcile them with those previously passed by the House. The full Senate, though, has yet to pass any appropriations bills, making it increasingly unlikely the overall appropriations process can be completed before the current CR expires.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, told reporters this week he expected that Congress would need to pass another CR because of the delay in passing the spending bills in the Senate. He also suggested that a new CR could last for several months, perhaps as late as March, because of potential impeachment proceedings against President Trump in the House and a subsequent trial in the Senate.

A lengthy CR has some in industry privately worried about its effects on the Artemis program. Unless the CR includes exceptions, known as anomalies, that allow agencies to change spending levels from 2019 for specific programs, NASA won’t be able to immediately increase spending on priorities like development of human lunar landers needed to return to the moon within five years.

The White House did request an anomaly in the original CR that would have allowed NASA to increase its spending rate for exploration programs. However, Congress elected to pass a “clean” CR without exceptions for agencies.

Some ongoing programs, like the Space Launch System and Orion, would suffer few effects of an extended CR since funding levels are similar for 2020 versus 2019. Programs that are starting, or require major increases in funding, would face greater challenges under a CR.

One example is the Human Landing System procurement, part of NASA’s Next Space Technologies for Exploration Partnerships (NextSTEP) program. NASA issued the final call for proposals Sept. 30, with those proposals initially due Nov. 1. An amendment issued Oct. 25 pushed back the proposal deadline to Nov. 5.

NASA plans to move quickly once proposals are in, issuing contracts to several companies for initial studies by January, later selecting one or two companies for full development. But, as NASA’s procurement notes, that plan is pending appropriations of funding.

“Funds are not currently available for this solicitation, but are expected to become available on or before contract award,” the document states. “The Government’s obligation to make awards is contingent upon the availability of appropriated funds from which payments can be made and the receipt of proposals that NASA determines are acceptable.”

Several companies are expected to submit proposals. Jeff Bezos, founder of Blue Origin, announced Oct. 22 that his company would lead a “national team” that includes Draper, Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman.

While Boeing has yet to formally announce if it will bid, Intuitive Machines, a company working on small robotic lunar landers, announced Oct. 24 it was working with Boeing on engines for lunar lander studies under a separate NextSTEP program for lunar lander architecture studies. “The relationship between Intuitive Machines and Boeing combines two stellar companies with ambition to fulfill NASA’s goal of returning to the moon in 2024,” Trent Martin, vice president of aerospace services at Intuitive Machines, said in his company’s statement.

SpaceX may also submit a proposal, perhaps involving its Starship next-generation reusable launch vehicle that the company has stated could land on the moon. “We want to go to the moon with commercial landers, and Starship, of course, is a commercial lander that we anticipate will be competing in this program,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said during a presentation at the 70th International Astronautical Congress here Oct. 25. “Do we know that? No, but, it certainly looks like they will be.”

Neither in that speech, nor in an Oct. 24 media availability at the conference, did Bridenstine address what the effect an extended CR would have on lunar lander development, and the agency did not respond to a question regarding that Oct. 24. However, he previously warned a long-term CR, including one lasting all of fiscal year 2020, would be a serious problem.

“It would be devastating,” Bridenstine said about the potential for a CR at a July 17 hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee. “If we end up in a CR, that lander doesn’t continue to get developed.”

At that media availability, Bridenstine remained optimistic that the agency will ultimately see bipartisan support despite what has become a hyperpartisan environment on Capitol Hill regarding the potential impeachment of the president.

“I honestly don’t know,” he said when asked if he thought the impeachment debate would make it harder for the agency to be funded. He argued that the agency’s lunar plans were not partisan. “We have strong bipartisan support.”