In a surprising display of timeliness, the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives have both now released their funding bills for NASA in fiscal year 2019. The two bills are broadly consistent in their repudiation of cuts and reorganizations of major NASA programs, support for the Administration's lunar ambitions, and generous top lines for NASA's budget.
However, there are significant differences, and those differences will be the point of negotiations that will now begin between the two committees. It is very likely that there will be no votes on a final bill until November or December, after the election.
Below is a table comparing proposed funding levels of some programs and directorates between last year's final budget, the President's Budget Request, and the House and Senate bills.
|2018||2019 PBR||2019 House||2019 Senate|
(incl. SLS, Orion, Ground Systems)
All numbers are in millions of dollars.
- If you are a fan of dark matter and wide-field infrared astronomy, you should be thanking your soon-to-be observed stars. Both the House and Senate reject the President's proposed cancellation of the WFIRST telescope, though only the Senate provides the full amount ($352 million) to keep the mission on track for a 2025 launch date. The House is more skeptical, and freezes funding at 2018 levels while the mission reformulates. Regardless, this is a strong statement by Congress to continue the mission. Mix that with the fact that the NASA Administrator has come out on record saying WFIRST will likely continue, and I will go out on a space policy expert limb and bet that yes, WFIRST will continue.
- Cuts to the Earth Science Division are once again rejected by both chambers, with the Senate taking particular care to specify funding for each of the missions targeted for cancellation by the Administration.
- NASA's Office of Education STEM Opportunities gets a funding boost and a new name from the Senate. The House fully funds it at 2018 levels. The White House wanted all of $0. Not a big surprise here, as this is a replay of 2018. Will the Administration learn its lesson for its 2020 President's Budget Request and give up on trying to end this clearly popular program?
- The LOP-G, everyone's favorite acronym and also a lunar space station, receives half a billion dollars in both the House and Senate bills, matching the Administration request. It's happening, people.
- Spending on NASA continues to grow. Whether it's by 3% (the Senate) or 4% (the House) or even higher (as possible when they compromise later this year), there is wide and bipartisan agreement that NASA needs to grow to support its mission. We recommended this back in January of last year. It's yet another rejection of behind the White House philosophy of cutting NASA.
- NASA's Planetary Science Division is once again facing an unnecessary tug-of-war between the Senate and the House. It isn't as bad as in previous years, when the Senate low-balled the low-ball White House proposals, but it still makes for an uncertain planning process for major projects, particularly the Europa Clipper, which may or may not launch in 2022. And the Europa lander, which may or may not exist. The Senate also takes no action on long-term Mars Exploration Program plans (the House requests a formal study) and expresses a hesitation for the Mars Helicopter.
- Without the results of the current independent review, both chamber in Congress provide the James Webb Space Telescope with its original funding levels in 2019. Both House and Senate warn NASA to not breach the $8 billion cost cap for the mission, which seems unlikely at this point, though I can't imagine there is a reality in which the plug gets pulled on the this project at this late stage. It could spell trouble for Astrophysics funding in the future.
- NASA proposed to significantly restructure itself and subsume the Space Technology Mission Directorate into a new Deep Space Exploration directorate. This would make it easier to use basic R&D funding to cover inevitable cost overruns in the LOP-G and other human exploration programs, and turn what is now a basic R&D program for the whole space program into an applied technology development program for human spaceflight. The Senate outright rejects this restructuring and adds money to Space Tech, an irony given that the Obama Administration always proposed more funding for Space Tech that was never provided by the Senate or House. The House takes a half-step by allowing the focus to change but seems to reject the subsumption of the directorate into human spaceflight. This throws the restructuring into limbo and also makes it hard for space policy professionals to compare budgets year-to-year.
- Remember the surprise $350 million for a new mobile launcher for the Space Launch System last year? The Senate wants to provide another $250 million for it this year. The second launcher (designed for the SLS Block II) is sorely needed to enable flexibility in SLS launches, but this appears to be throwing money at a project that does not yet have a proposal, much less a budget or timeline for completion (at least not one that is public, anyway).
The full Senate and House are preparing to vote on a number of appropriations bills (beyond the CJS bill, which includes NASA) this Summer. Politicking could sideline these votes, but eventually the Congress needs to approve appropriations legislation or the government will shut down. The Fall elections will slow down legislating, and there is a good chance that we will see a stopgap continuing resolution bill passed beforehand to keep the government operating until the end of the year.
In the meantime, The Planetary Society has an updated message for you to send to Congress that supports the House's proposed increase for the Planetary Science Division. We of course will be working to support our priorities, including planetary exploration, planetary defense, and the search for life, during the extended period of negotiations coming our way.