The full House Appropriations Committee will mark up the FY2025 bill that funds NASA tomorrow. The top-line numbers have been known since subcommittee markup last month, but now the subcommittee’s report is out with details on spending priorities. Despite cutting NASA below the President’s request — which would have been just enough to restore the agency’s funding to its FY2023 level — the subcommittee directs NASA to spend more on certain programs, notably Mars Sample Return.

President Biden requested $25.834 billion for NASA in FY2025 to bring the agency back to what it had in FY2023 after deep cuts by Congress for FY2024. House Republicans insisted last year that the Administration agree to sharply reduce federal spending in return for suspending the debt limit. Biden and then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy negotiated the Fiscal Responsibility Act (FRA) that capped FY2024 non-defense spending at FY2023 levels with only a one percent increase allowed in FY2025.

The caps were for spending overall, not specific agencies. In the end, NASA wasn’t held at its FY2023 level, but cut two percent below that to $24.875 billion, which was more than $2 billion below Biden’s $27 billion request. NASA is reeling from the cuts, which are exacerbated by inflation.

Although Congress is generally supportive of NASA, FY2025 will be another tough year for the agency. House appropriators are sticking with the FRA spending caps. The Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee approved just a one percent increase for NASA when it released the FY2025 bill on June 25, which means a one percent cut from the request. At the time, only the top-line funding figures for each of NASA’s major funding categories were available, but it was clear the cuts are targeted at NASA’s science and STEM education programs.

The accompanying report released today provides more details on the subcommittee’s science priorities. Earth science bears the brunt of the cuts and while the planetary science division gets a boost, it is not nearly enough to cover what the subcommittee wants to add for the Mars Sample Return program.

The subcommittee directs NASA to spend $650 million on MSR in FY2025, a $450 million increase over the request. While it adds roughly $200 million for planetary science, that’s not enough to cover the difference.

The subcommittee’s support for MSR is no surprise. It fully endorsed MSR’s $949 million request last year even though it was clear the program would substantially exceed its cost estimate. The Senate committee took the opposite approach, however, approving only $300 million. As months ticked by waiting for Congress to finalize appropriations and worried the Senate number might prevail, NASA notified the California Institute of Technology that funding cuts were likely. Caltech operates the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC), that manages the MSR program. JPL consequently laid off eight percent of its workforce, triggering complaints from members of Congress whose constituents were affected including Mike Garcia (R-CA), a member of the subcommittee.

The FY2024 compromise was to let NASA decide how much to spend between those two amounts. After assessing the results of an Independent Review Board that concluded the cost would be in the $8-11 billion range, NASA dramatically scaled back spending while asking for ideas from industry, JPL, and NASA centers on how to accomplish the mission affordably. It will spend $310 million in FY2024 and requested $200 million for FY2025.

Garcia vigorously argued in favor of MSR in April when NASA Administrator Bill Nelson testified to the subcommittee, particularly in terms of the need to retain JPL’s experienced workforce and its institutional knowledge.

In today’s report, the subcommittee directed NASA not only to spend $650 million on MSR this year, but ensure future budgets include enough funding so it can launch no later than 2031.

Excerpt from the House Appropriations subcommittee report to accompany the FY2025 Commerce-Justice- Science bill, released July 8, 2024.

NASA will have to redirect money from other programs to make up the difference, but it’s not clear what programs they will be. The subcommittee has other planetary science priorities, too.  It even allows two programs — the NEO Surveyor asteroid hunting space telescope and the Lunar Discovery and Exploration Program (LDEP) that includes Commercial Lunar Delivery Services (CLPS) public-private partnerships to put commercial landers on the Moon — to spend more than requested. The request for NEO Surveyor is $235.6 million and the subcommittee allows NASA to spend between that and $296.7 million. The request for LDEP is $458.3 million and NASA can spend up to $533.3 million.

The Dragonfly program to send a rotorcraft to Saturn’s moon Titan gets a shout out along with the need to preserve the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, plan for a successor, and advance plans for a new lunar orbiter with a high resolution camera.

The subcommittee further allocates $5 million for NASA to develop a plan to send a reconnaissance probe to study the asteroid Apophis before it reaches Earth in April 2029. Scientists are certain Apophis will not hit Earth, but it will come close. An existing NASA spacecraft, OSIRIS-APEX, will study Apophis in detail after it passes Earth, but they want data before it gets here, too, for comparison purposes. The subcommittee proposes a public-private partnership and directs NASA to provide a briefing within 120 days of the bill’s enactment on how it will prioritize resources “effectively to ensure the success of this mission.”

All of that is just within the planetary science division. The subcommittee champions a number of other science programs, including the Chandra X-ray telescope.  NASA wants to reduce funding for Chandra to meet other needs.

Even in earth science, which would be cut $378 million from the request, the subcommittee comments only on programs it supports including Landsat and Landsat Next, airborne observations of the stratosphere, wildfire early detection, detecting Harmful Algal Blooms, and finding a way to launch an instrument that was developed for the GeoCarb program that was canceled last year.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson often says NASA is being asked to put 10 pounds of potatoes into a 5-pound sack and that certainly seems true in this case.  Whether the full committee makes any changes at tomorrow’s markup remains to be seen, but all of this is just the first step in a lengthy process. Where NASA ultimately ends up when the FY2025 appropriations process is finished is impossible to predict other than that it will be less than it needs to accomplish all that Congress wants it to do.

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