By Lewis-Burke Associates LLC
The White House released an updated budget request to provide an additional $1.6 billion for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to support the Administration’s goal of accelerated human exploration of the Moon. The mission, named Project Artemis, would aim to land male and female astronauts on the lunar surface by 2024. While primarily benefiting non-science programs, the outcomes could have profound indirect implications for NASA’s portfolio of research and engineering programs. The proposal also includes increases to other agencies for programs unrelated to space exploration along with budgetary offsets that would ensure the overall budget request amendment remains deficit neutral.
In addition to NASA, the amended budget would restore funding to programs previously slated for elimination in the President’s original FY 2020 request, such as funding at the Department of Education (ED) for the Special Olympics for example. In identifying offsets for these increases, the Administration proposed reductions to programs such as a controversial $1.8 billion reduction of the Department of Education’s Pell Grant program’s carry-over budgetary surplus, which would be in addition to a $2 billion reduction outlined in the original FY 2020 budget request. The proposal to reduce student aid funding elicited sharp criticism from Members of Congress in both parties, the higher education community, and major media outlets.
In a call with mostly industry stakeholders on May 16, NASA senior leadership pitched the agency’s plans and especially the hope that universities will support Artemis and leverage their position to strengthen the U.S. STEM pipeline. NASA CFO Jeff DeWitt noted that NASA was not involved in the budget offset discussions, the requested increases and reductions in other federal agencies, and pushed back on the perception of a trade-off between NASA and the Pell Grant program.
The largest implication for NASA’s research and engineering portfolio would be the continued reorientation of the agency’s human exploration objectives from Mars to a sustained presence in the lunar environment. Prior budget requests by the Trump Administration have outlined this reorientation. In April, Vice President Mike Pence announced an expedited timeline to land Americans on the south pole of the Moon by 2024 and establish an enduring human presence by 2028. NASA stakeholders – including industry, academia, and scientific organizations – have mostly embraced the proposal but voiced skepticism at its cost and schedule feasibility and concerns over budgetary impacts on non-human exploration activities.
The details of Project Artemis are consistent with the Administration’s desire to further reorient the agency towards human spaceflight objectives. Requested increases are divided as follows:
- Science: NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) would receive $90 million above the fiscal year (FY) 2020 request. This increase would allow NASA to procure commercial delivery of a robotic mission to the lunar south pole as a pre-cursor to the planned human mission in 2024.
- Exploration Technology: The request proposes an added $132 million for NASA’s Exploration Technology account for research and development of capabilities needed for human exploration missions to the Moon. This includes an In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) demonstration and solar electric propulsion (SEP) technologies. The request also reaffirms the Administration’s continued push to eliminate the cross-agency Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) in favor of the human spaceflight-oriented Exploration Technology Directorate. Congress has previously rejected this reorganization in FY 2018 and FY 2019.
- Deep Space Exploration Systems: The FY 2020 budget amendment would provide $651 million to accelerate development of the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft. Both have experienced significant cost and schedule delays and are key priorities of Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL).
Additionally, the request includes $1 billion for procurement of a commercial lunar lander. Per the proposal, this amount would include additional savings by de-scoping several non-critical aspects of NASA’s planned lunar space station known as Gateway. The de-scope could reduce opportunities for future space research and lunar remote sensing based on the orbital platform.
Lastly, the budget amendment requests Congress grant NASA the freedom to move funds more freely between appropriations accounts. This has been rejected in the past by both chambers. A backdrop of the uncertain budgetary outcomes for FY 2020 also highlights the choice appropriators will be required to make in continuing longstanding support for NASA without enacting unsavory offsets in favored programs. Science and research programs not tied to Artemis could see significant impacts should Congress fail to reach a broader deal for FY 2020 while embracing increases to lunar exploration. These impacts could be exacerbated if NASA is granted increased discretion in transferring funding from accounts deemed non-essential to Artemis, especially if foundational technologies like SLS and Orion face continued cost growth.
The proposed request amendments have been submitted very late in the appropriations process, with the House Appropriations Committees already having written draft bills. The House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies (CJS) marked up its funding bill for NASA on May 17 while the full Committee approved its version of the Labor, Health and Human Services, Education (Labor-H) appropriations bill, which sets funding for the ED and its student aid programs, on May 8. The Senate will take up its own versions of these bills in the coming months. Due to the timing of amended budget request, the House CJS bill does not include funding for Project Artemis. However, the Senate may consider the proposal within its version of the bills.
Sources and Additional Information:
- The Administration’s FY 2020 budget request amendment can be found here.
- The summary for changes to NASA’s FY 2020 proposal is available here.
- Lewis-Burke’s original analysis of the Administration’s FY 2020 budget request can be found here