House budget bill denies major increases for NASA to fund ambitious Moon program

House appropriators don’t intend to substantially increase NASA’s budget, potentially jeopardizing the agency’s plans of sending astronauts back to the Moon by 2024.

Today, the House Appropriations Committee released its latest funding bill for fiscal year 2021, detailing the budgets for all commerce, justice, and science agencies in the US. The bill would give NASA a total budget of $22.63 billion for next year, the same amount the agency received for 2020. However, it’s nearly $3 billion less than the $25.2 billion the Trump administration called for in the president’s budget request — a hefty amount intended to fund an ambitious lunar return.

NASA has been very vocal about its goal to send the first woman and the next man to the Moon as part of the agency’s Artemis program. And NASA has a very tight deadline to make that happen. In early 2019, Vice President Mike Pence challenged the agency to put people back on the Moon by 2024. Many experts have been skeptical of NASA’s ability to meet the fast-approaching goal, given the sheer amount of technology development, testing, and funding required to make it happen.

In the president’s budget request released in February, the Trump administration laid out its desired budget plan for the next five years to help fund the Artemis program. The proposal called for NASA’s budget to increase to around $26 or $27 billion each year, potentially getting up to $28.6 billion in 2023. Today’s House appropriations bill signals that Congress is reluctant to provide that full amount.

Perhaps the biggest sleight in funding involves the development of a human lunar lander, a crucial piece of technology needed to transport astronauts to the Moon’s surface. In April, NASA awarded three primary companies — Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Dynetics — with contracts to further study lunar lander concepts. The president’s budget request asked that a whopping $3.4 billion be set aside for human lunar lander development. Instead, the House Appropriations Committee only provided $1.56 billion for exploration research and development, which includes money for the human lunar landing system. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine indicated that only $628.2 million of that would be allotted for the landers — nearly $3 billion less than what the agency had hoped for.

Despite this major discrepancy, Bridenstine expressed optimism about the bill. “The $628.2 million in funding for the human landing system (HLS) is an important first step in this year’s appropriations process,” Bridenstine said in a statement. “We still have more to do and I look forward to working with the Senate to ensure America has the resources to land the first woman and next man on the Moon in 2024.”

This year, in particular, it was going to be difficult to get such a big boost for NASA, according to Casey Dreier, the chief advocate and senior space policy adviser for the Planetary Society. Congressional spending caps increased but not by a substantial amount, he says. Additionally, the funding that House appropriators come up with for NASA is derived from one big set amount of money that the House allocates for agencies within science, justice, and commerce. And this year, the House gave a substantial increase to the Justice Department — close to $1 billion — to help address police reform, in response to the killing of George Floyd at the hands of police.

“Congress redistributed that funding to their priorities,” Dreier tells The Verge. He says that congresspeople are reacting to what is happening on the ground right now, including recent protests and “an increasing awareness of racial injustice.” He also speculates that the Trump administration’s increasing embrace of human spaceflight imagery may not help the Democratic-led House be favorable to NASA’s budget increase. Recently, the Trump campaign created a political ad, using footage from NASA of SpaceX’s recent crewed launch to the International Space Station. After receiving backlash, the campaign took down the ad.

“The alignment of one party with kind of a soft ideological activity of government like that actually induces opposition just naturally by the opposing party, and it becomes a symbol,” says Dreier.

As Bridenstine alluded to in his statement, the House bill is not a done deal. House lawmakers will review the proposed bill, and eventually, the Senate Appropriations Committee will release its own bill laying out funding for NASA. If all goes to plan, Congress will then reconcile the two bills, ultimately coming up with the finalized budget for NASA for next year. That means there’s still a long way to go before NASA finds out just how much money it will receive for 2021.

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