A bigger budgetary pie will allow the space agency to grow—for one year at least
Just days before the start of their summer recess, the U.S. Congress passed a 2-year bipartisan budget that prevented self-imposed, destructive spending cuts for both defense and non-defense agencies. President Trump signed the bill, H.R. 3877, into law on 2 August.
Relative to 2019, the bill increases spending caps (a.k.a "budget authority") for all non-defense discretionary accounts by $27 billion and defense-related programs by $20 billion. For fiscal year 2021, these amounts will grow by a meager $3 billion and $5 billion, respectively.
Absent this legislation, federal agencies faced a crippling $125 billion cut in fiscal year 2020—an outcome of the Budget Control Act (BCA) passed in 2011, which imposed automatic cuts (a "sequester") if Congress was unable to limit spending. Congress only allowed the BCA to come into full effect once, in fiscal year 2013, exempting itself from the BCA's spending limits, to varying degrees, every year since.
The latest budget deal does not directly set spending levels for NASA. However, it does increase the size of the budgetary pie, making it easier for the space agency to receive a bigger slice during the appropriations process later this year.
There are two issues at play, however, that will complicate this.
The first, of course, is Project Artemis. The Trump Administration sent a surprise supplemental budget request to Congress in support of an accelerated human lunar effort, proposing an additional $1.6 billion for Artemis in 2020. In total, the White House's budget request for NASA is $22.6 billion, a 5% increase over 2019. This budget also proposes the cancellation of the WFIRST space telescope, NASA's entire STEM outreach/education division, and several Earth science missions.
The Democratic-led House of Representatives responded by passing their own funding legislation for NASA in 2020. It also increased NASA's budget by about 5%—to $22.3 billion—restoring all the programs cut by the Trump Administration and providing no additional funds for Artemis. Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY), chair of the House subcommittee responsible for funding NASA, recently reiterated his skepticism of Artemis and its goal to land humans on the Moon by 2024.
Orion Crew Vehicle
Safety, Security, & Mission Services
Construction and Environmental Compliance
All values are in millions of dollars. *Includes the supplemental FY 2020 budget request released in May 2019.
The Republican-led Senate has yet to take any legislative action, waiting instead for a deal on overall spending caps before moving ahead with detailed federal appropriations. Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS), who chairs the Senate subcommittee that funds NASA, appears supportive of Artemis. It is likely that the Senate will be more responsive to the Trump Administration's NASA proposals, setting up a conflict with House Democrats in the fall.
If NASA received an equal share of the non-defense budget increase, it's budget would grow to $22.5 billion in 2020. That's not enough to support both the House priorities and the proposed boost to Project Artemis. Obviously, the straightforward answer is that NASA should grow beyond $22.5 billion to support the most ambitious human spaceflight program in a generation without sacrificing science missions. This is not unprecedented in recent years, but this outcome is far from guaranteed.
Both sides of Congress must reach agreement on funding legislation before the new fiscal year begins on 1 October or the government will shut down. Given Congress is on break until 9 September, it is very likely we will see short-term, stopgap spending measures in early October that will provide more time for the parties to reach a compromise agreement.
Regardless of how fiscal year 2020 turns out, fiscal year 2021 provides a less fertile opportunity for NASA's budgetary growth. Non-defense discretionary funding increases by a paltry $3 billion or 0.4%. Evenly-distributed, that would give NASA an additional $100 million or so—not even enough to offset inflation.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine stated that Project Artemis will cost $20 to $30 billion over the next few years, meaning that NASA must begin to see significant ($4 to $5 billion) increases in FY 2021 or be forced to cannibalize funding from other space programs. Bridenstine has repeatedly (and correctly) said that raiding funds from other programs will lead to a collapse in political support for Project Artemis. But absent overall budgetary growth, NASA will find itself competing for a bigger slice of a fixed budgetary pie—a competition that, historically, has not been kind to the space program.