Planetary Radio • Oct 01, 2021
Space Policy Edition: NASA's Congressional Logjam
On This Episode
Chief of Space Policy for The Planetary Society
Senior Communications Adviser and former Host of Planetary Radio for The Planetary Society
A polarized U.S. Congress is juggling nearly half a dozen pieces of major legislation, several of which face time-sensitive deadlines that, if missed, could create significant disruption for major NASA programs. Brendan Curry, The Planetary Society's Chief of D.C. Operations, reports on the view from inside the beltway, and helps us understand how the current logjam of legislation could impact or delay NASA policymaking. Casey and Mat address NASA's major reorganization of its human spaceflight program and how scuba is a cheaper alternative to space tourism.
Related Reading and References:
- NASA Splits its Human Spaceflight Directorate in Two
- House Science Committee advances budget reconciliation package
- Congress Averts Shutdown, Sends 9-week Funding Patch to Biden's Desk
- Pandemic causes delay and cost increase for NASA’s Roman Space Telescope
- Sign up for the Space Advocate monthly newsletter
Mat Kaplan: Welcome everyone. It is the first Friday in October. It's time for Planetary Radio's Space Policy Edition. I'm Mat Kaplan, the host of Planetary Radio, particularly the weekly show that I hope you're all tuning into and enjoying. Thank you for that. I am joined by Casey Dreier, the Senior Space Policy Advisor and Chief Advocate for The Planetary Society, with whom I have been co-hosting the Space Policy Edition for ... I've lost track, years and years.
Casey Dreier: More than five years.
Mat Kaplan: Going on five and a half years now. Hi, Casey.
Casey Dreier: Hey, Mat. Happy to be here. I guess, it's always timings a little awkward, but I guess this is our spooky Halloween edition of the Space Policy show. We have an appropriately scary situation to discuss, congressionally, with debt limits, and potential government shutdowns, and funding clips and all other wild stuff happening in the US congress that will impact NASA.
Casey Dreier: To talk about that, we have our colleague, Brendan Curry, our Chief of DC operations. We will be discussing what is happening in DC later in this episode.
Mat Kaplan: Very much looking forward to hearing from Brendan in just a few minutes here. I guess, in space, no one could hear you scream. In DC, everyone can hear you scream.
Casey Dreier: No one cares.
Mat Kaplan: Just frequently. It happens a lot. Oh, well, scary space kitties. I'm sorry you had to drop back into this maelstrom after having what certainly sounds a wonderful vacation that included getting your scuba certification, which is something that I've had for a long time. Though, I haven't used it in a long time. Congratulations.
Casey Dreier: Well, thanks, Mat. It's the most affordable alternative to flying into space right now that I can do and get a sense of weightlessness while underwater. I actually had a really fun time doing that with my wife. We went to Hawaii, and we've learned how to scuba. Really, what I found really amazing was your neutral buoyancy, and you can inhale and exhale, and you can control your presence or your position in the z-axis.
Casey Dreier: It's a very new way to think about navigating through space that you can control with your breath, which was just a very interesting way to engage with the natural world. I saw some fish along the way. Something you probably wouldn't see in space, hopefully, unless things go very wrong or very excitingly right, depending maybe on Europa you could see something like that.
Casey Dreier: Yeah. It was great and very abrupt transition back to things here. But, of course, always fascinating to follow what's happening in space policy.
Mat Kaplan: That is always what I've loved about being under the water. It's that sense of weightlessness and, oh, major sigh. I suppose it may be the closest to you and I get there. Maybe you have a better shot than I do. But I'm still keeping some hope that we get to try that way above our heads as well.
Casey Dreier: Oh, I was going to say, I keep buying the weekly lottery ticket. If it wins, it's a nonzero. It's not a good chance. Not even a bad chance. It's an awful chance. But it's a nonzero chance. Mat, if I pull that off, I will buy you a seat next to me on the next Blue Origin or Virgin Galactic Flight.
Mat Kaplan: Just remember, Casey, our schools win, too.
Casey Dreier: Sure. Yes. Yep. See, that's selfless as my selfless act to contribute to something like that.
Mat Kaplan: We used to laugh. That was a laugh line when I worked for school district many years ago as well. Let's get on to the laugh lines coming out of Washington. Well, before we do that, something very serious, but very fun. Please, if you have not already, you're listening to this show. I hope you're enjoying it. Planetary.org/join is where you can help us create it. Help us pay for it by becoming a member of The Planetary Society.
Mat Kaplan: It's easy to do. We have lots of levels. We have wonderful plans ahead of us and tremendous accomplishments behind us. You can directly support the terrific work that Casey and Brendan and others of our colleagues are doing across the world and most definitely in Washington, DC. I highly recommend it. I'm a member and I know Casey is, too.
Casey Dreier: That's true. I will support that, Mat, and also make a plug for the monthly Space Advocate Newsletter to sign up to get us news summary of all the great things happening in space policy and politics and an essay by me. Again, I always love reading and engaging the feedback I get from members and reaction to that newsletter. That's it. Just Google Space Advocate Newsletter, it'll be one of the top hits from The Planetary Society or you can follow the link in the show notes to this month's episode.
Mat Kaplan: All right. Let's get to what's going on. In this week's weekly show, the one that premiered just a couple of days ago as this show is published, I had to catch myself, because I was introducing Kathy Lueders as the Associate Administrator of a Directorate at NASA that doesn't exist anymore as of only a few days ago. No worries about Kathy. She is also the Associate Administrator of a brand new directorate. Give us the lowdown.
Casey Dreier: Yeah. I was just thinking in my head as you're introducing this, how many other government agencies get breathless podcasts based on their organizational restructuring. But this is important. I think, understanding how the bureaucratic state and the administrative state work to advance these types of goals is something worth paying attention to. In this case, we're looking at how NASA organizes itself to pursue various aspects of human spaceflight.
Casey Dreier: What happens? We saw this surprise announcement and somewhat out of the blue from Bill Nelson and from NASA saying they had a big announcement to make the next day. What it was is that they are splitting up what was known as the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, HEOMD. Maybe just to step even further back, directorates at NASA, these are basically the largest organizational constructs of NASA's bureaucracy.
Casey Dreier: There's a science directorate called SMD, the Science Mission Directorate. There's the Space Technology Mission Directorate, STMD. In these big programs, they have all of the sub-programs that are grouped by behavior. In SMD, the Science Mission Directorate, they have planetary science division. They have astrophysics division. They go to a division level, and that's the divisions that then pursue these various mission projects.
Casey Dreier: HEOMD, Human Exploration and Operations, was this very big chunk of NASA. It's almost half of NASA's entire budget at this point. As the name implies, exploration and operations, the person sitting at the top, Kathy Lueders, and before that, Bill Gerstenmaier, managed both the implementation, the active operations of basically the International Space Station, and active development of future programs, in this case, particularly the SLS, Orion, Gateway, and Artemis related human spaceflight programs.
Casey Dreier: Development and operations are two very different needs. Operations is really about maintaining. You've done the hard work of engineering, of designing, and building something of assembling it, and now you're into the let's use this and maximize the value we get out of it. Development is something that takes roughly 90% of the entire budget of a project in its lifetime. It's figuring out what it will look like, how to make it, making it fixing all the bugs and weird things, and just putting it into space.
Casey Dreier: Now operations tend to be much cheaper. There's a different set of problems, of course. But development is really a different set of engineering approaches. HEOMD, as we know it, is only about 10 years old. It was formed in the aftermath of the cancellation of the Constellation program in the early 2010s, under the Obama administration. Constellation being NASA's first effort in the 21st century to return humans to the moon.
Casey Dreier: Now you had an exploration division, and then you had a space operations division. Two separate directorates at that point, doing basically ISS and then Constellation. Constellation, there was functionally no long-term human exploration project anymore. NASA decided to merge those two directorates together into this catch all HEOMD.
Casey Dreier: Now, of course, with Artemis, really kicking up, and with really hitting into these periods of peak development for the gateway for the human landing system, the first development and operational tests of the SLS and Orion, they decided that this is in a sense ... or Bill Nelson decided this is too big of a project for one person to manage and to split these back out basically to what they used to be, to a separate exploration systems, development directorate, and into space operations mission directorate.
Casey Dreier: Kathy Lueders will maintain space operations. The Space Station Commercial Crew, Commercial Cargo, and then Jim Free, this previously Director of NASA Center, and who had retired a few years ago will be taking over as the Associate Administrator, is what their names are, of the new Exploration Systems Development one. That's the reasoning and the history and why this is important is that now Kathy Lueders will be able to focus very much on operations at the Space Station, maximizing its use and working with Commercial Crew.
Casey Dreier: Then we have the new Exploration Systems to really just focus on development. It cuts down the bureaucratic responsibilities for the individuals at the top and their top lieutenants and supporters.
Mat Kaplan: In a practical sense, what will this mean? Is this going to be basically transparent for as we look at Artemis going into high gear and that collaboration with other nations? I mean, do any other nations, any other partners have reason to be concerned?
Casey Dreier: No. This is all going to be very much under the hood restructuring of NASA. The external engagement will be very much the same. Really, the only real shift that'll happen will be, again, internally. Because now, when the budget process goes through, when NASA is developing its own budget proposal that it then tries to get approval from the White House for, that then it ultimately submits the congress, now human spaceflight will be ... You have two divisions of human spaceflight.
Casey Dreier: Actually, jockeying for their funding priorities with each other, in addition to the other big directorates. This doesn't necessarily fundamentally change. There may have been internal jockeying just at a lower level, between the exploration and operation side. A way to step back and think about this, the value of having internal bureaucratic structures devoted to certain NASA operations, science, human exploration, human space operations, bureaucracies at certain level, one of the things they're very good at is maintaining themselves, persistence in themselves.
Casey Dreier: That can actually be turned into a very good thing, if you want what they do to also persist. You have created a system of internal advocates for their operations, because they want to keep their prioritization, they want to do well, they want to keep their own people doing these types of things. Now you've split out operations for human spaceflight from exploration. Again, this is somewhat theoretical here. But you could see that there could be a more muscular self-representation by either the spaceflight operations side or the exploration side.
Casey Dreier: That could result in more ... No. Potentially more resources for exploration or first .... It's just they've split up, in a sense, the internal jocking and internal political system that they can speak for themselves in a more focused way. That's not necessarily a bad thing. It's just it creates that tension that may not have existed at such a high level before.
Mat Kaplan: It's nothing new. I mean, this is true in any organization or reorganization that might end up with two entities where there once was one. It's perfectly natural. Kathy Lueders will be able to focus on making sure that everything keeps running well. We've got lots of new systems that are going to be handed off to her over the coming years as we head back to the moon, and hopefully Mars.
Casey Dreier: There were some worry from some in the space media. This is a demotion for Kathy Lueders. But she's still an Associate Administrator, which is about as high up as you get in the NASA hierarchy before you're really into the very top level administrative suite. There's also some concern that bringing in a somewhat unknown individual to run the Exploration Systems, compared to Kathy Lueders who had led basically the NASA's Commercial Crew project, this very new way of doing business style of NASA, the public private partnership.
Casey Dreier: At this new person coming in, Jim Free, doesn't have as much experience. He's not as much of a known quantity about really promoting those types of contracting agreements, private participation. Perhaps a worry out there that he will bring back more of a cost plus, give contractors whatever they want structure. I think those at the moment are unfounded. We just don't have really any data to say one way or another.
Casey Dreier: Plus, a lot of the major efforts in the exploration program now, Gateway, Human Landing System, the Human Spacesuits, they're already being procured through these public, private partnerships. It's unlikely he will just, as a stroke of a pen, undo any of those. A lot of those have already been baked in. We will see what he brings to the table in terms of priorities. I think it's not necessarily a negative consequence.
Casey Dreier: As we say, it's a reversion back to the mean at NASA for having two separate directorates focused on exploration and human operations.
Mat Kaplan: Let's move on to another topic as we prepare to bring in Brendan Curry. We've also talked recently on the weekly show, about the expected release of the Planetary Science Decadal Survey. Now expected in spring of 2022. But there are other decadal surveys and you've been looking at a more imminent one or the astrophysics survey.
Casey Dreier: Astrophysics surveys supposed to come out sometime this year. I feel it's Duke Nukem forever, always in promise production that keeps being indefinitely delayed at some point. It has to come out. Again, decadal survey, big effort by the science community through the National Academies of Sciences to put together a formal set of priorities for the next decade in every NASA science division, in this case, astrophysics.
Casey Dreier: Again, we're waiting. We, of course, will dive into that report when it comes out. It's sated, I think, the latest I've heard is just fall of '21, which we are in now. We have rapidly diminishing number of months left in fall of '21 to get through. One of the consequences of this delays that I think is worth considering is at this point, it's coming out late enough that it will no longer influence NASA's budget request for the upcoming fiscal year.
Casey Dreier: NASA has to plan a year in advance for the request, which then congress eventually adapts and funds the following year. It's always a little hard to keep track of. But NASA is working internally now on its 2023 fiscal year request, which will be released sometime in February and ideally be approved by congress sometime next September. We're working almost a year in advance.
Casey Dreier: However, without the guidance of the Astrophysics Decadal Survey, we will not have this official scientific community's priorities reflected in that request. That's another year of ... I believe this was originally supposed to come out last year. This is two years now of that decadal period, 20%, without that guidance.
Casey Dreier: Now, to some degree, this is a moot point, because of the overwhelming presence of the James Webb Space Telescope effort, and the effort to try to follow the priority of the previous decadal survey, the Roman Space Telescope, originally WFIRST, which is now moving into full production, consuming roughly a third of the entire astrophysics budget every year. We just had news that because of COVID, and other problems that the project now won't launch until 2027.
Casey Dreier: Again, really towards the end of the next decadal period anyway. We're actually hitting a number of backlog issues that are really going to constrain what NASA and the scientific community are able to do in this upcoming astrophysics decadal period of the 2020s. Just wanted to acknowledge that this is one of the weird second or third tertiary effects of the COVID pandemic is the delay of these types of reports has these delays in terms of budgeting, and can delay other major projects that at the end of the day, will severely curtail or limit the possible ... the ability to address these top scientific priorities.
Casey Dreier: It's not a very happy piece of news, I suppose. But it's something that's worth paying attention to, really trying to understand how the gears of these systems work, and why things do work do not happen. In this case, that delayed report can actually have a pretty serious consequence 10 years down the line.
Mat Kaplan: Of course, we are looking forward to finally, the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope, now scheduled for December 18th. I am told that it is on its way down to the launch site in French Guiana where it will head into space on top of an Ariane 5 rocket. Then spend the next month and a half, two months ... Ah, fingers crossed actuating all those things that have to unfold and drop into place and work perfectly so that we can have this very powerful follow on to the Hubble Space Telescope and other space telescopes.
Casey Dreier: I believe our colleague called that the 45 days of terror.
Mat Kaplan: Yes.
Casey Dreier: That will.
Mat Kaplan: I've heard people in the project call it pretty much the same thing.
Casey Dreier: Yeah. It's going to be a nail-biter over Christmas and New Year's this year to make sure everything's working right. But it's amazing to say as we're recording this, there is an $8 billion telescope on a boat right now going down to French Guiana to be prepared for that launch. I know that they were ... There's a great article, I think, by Marina Koren at The Atlantic talking about how they had to secretly do this to avoid pirates, who might ... I don't know what they would do with an $8 billion telescope, but nothing good probably, if you had pirates attack that boat.
Casey Dreier: There's all sorts of security and secrecy around this that are required to ship something. I mean, it cost $8 billion, but it's an irreplaceable object. It is a priceless object at this point. It's exciting to see this actually start to happen. I feel maybe this is the real Duke Nukem forever moment that this has been finally going to be released. Hopefully the outcome will be a slightly more positive experience.
Mat Kaplan: Don't worry. It's all going to work that 100 and something single points of failure on the JWST. It's all going to work. I have faith. I also have faith in our colleague, Brendan Curry.
Casey Dreier: Good segue.
Mat Kaplan: I think we're ready to bring him in.
Casey Dreier: Let's bring him in. Let's bring in Brendan. We will go into all of the stuff that's happening in congress right now, how it relates to NASA, and we'll see if we can work through what we can expect.
Mat Kaplan: Brendan Curry will join us in less than a minute.
Bruce Betts: Hi, again, everyone. It's Bruce. Many of you know that I'm the program manager for The Planetary Society's LightSail program. LightSail 2 made history with its launch and deployment in 2019, and it's still sailing. It will soon be featured in the Smithsonian's New Futures Exhibition. Your support made this happen. LightSail still has much to teach us. Will you help us sail on in our extended mission?
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Casey Dreier: Brendan, my colleague and Chief of our DC operations here at The Planetary Society. Thanks for taking a break out of what seems to be a relatively calm and staid period in Washington DC to talk to us.
Brendan Curry: Well, Casey, it's always good to talk to you, and Mat. As I sit down, my cup of tea and just enjoy classical music behind me. Yeah. It's been a certain interesting situation right now over the past several months in Washington, that's for sure.
Casey Dreier: Let's try to work through ... This is a complex situation. Because there are rough, I think from my count, about four, maybe even five arguably pieces of legislation that are up in the air that at one level or another all are going to interface with NASA funding and even finding more broadly for other space issues. Let's just say this is going to be somewhat topical.
Casey Dreier: We're recording this on the last day of September. October 1st is the fiscal New Year. Let's maybe address the most pertinent issue first. We need some legislation authorizing the US Treasury to spend money in the new fiscal New Year on October 1st. We don't have that yet, as we're recording this. This context, what's this particular piece of legislation that we're concerned about?
Brendan Curry: I'm assuming you're asking about an appropriations vehicle that's euphemistically called a continuing resolution, also known as a CR. What that does, Casey, it basically takes everything in discretionary spending from the current fiscal year, and just keeps all the government departments and agencies on track at their current fiscal spending measure. Right now, it's looking that could last until very early December.
Brendan Curry: I've talked with folks who think that it could drop or extend into early mid-March. I've talked to some other folks that say they're game planning for a yearlong CR. Now normally, a CR, everyone in the space business gets a little cranky about that, because it means "No new starts." If there's a space project that was expected to get funding in the new upcoming fiscal year, that's all on hold.
Brendan Curry: That said, a lot of the lobbyists from the space industry folks that I work with, considering all the unpredictability, their company, and their co-workers, and their workforce, and their suppliers, and subcontractors have had because of the virus, actually a CR isn't considered ... is bad as it normally would be, because it simply provides some modicum of predictability.
Brendan Curry: They can tell their assembly line folks, their suppliers, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera, "Situation normal, just do what we've done for the past fiscal year. You will also have a job. Supplier A, we need a hundred widgets from you still. Supplier B, we need a hundred widgets from you." It provides some modicum of stability. That's really needed right now is what I'm finding out.
Casey Dreier: The point of having a CR ... If you have a CR in the context of a global pandemic, that's actually not the worst thing. I guess that's what it took for a CR to not be the worst possible thing.
Brendan Curry: Well said.
Casey Dreier: Yeah. Yeah. Just to make it clear, the CR, it's this temporary extension. Right now, it looks maybe to December 3rd. They have the option of continuing to extend it. This is not unusual. We've gone through this the last few years. I don't know if we got this close to the cutoff limit. But usually, frequently, it's been ...
Brendan Curry: Right after Labor Day.
Casey Dreier: ... relations. Yeah. Well, frequent has been the final preparations finally get passed in December. It's a month's end to the fiscal year, if not later. This is not unusual. But what's been unusual is that it's been ... We're hours away from the government having to shut down. That's the consequential thing. We talked about this on an episode of Space Policy edition a few years ago, when the government shut down and contractors that you were just talking about, they had to lay people off, because they weren't getting their contract funding coming in from the government.
Casey Dreier: They had no cash to cover labor, and other overhead costs. It was very damaging and disruptive. No one really likes to have a shutdown, obviously. It's good to see this may get us through, at least to push that clip off. That's not the worst thing. The only thing I do worry about in the year long CR might be the NEO Surveyor Mission, which is getting a new start this year in the budget. They might be able to move some money around for that, since it seems quite popular.
Casey Dreier: But there are some consequences. Conversely, you can't cancel missions in the CR either. That would be Sofia would continue, which is up for cancellation this year, as well. You can't start or stop programs in the CR.
Brendan Curry: Yeah. It's a really mixed bag, and what everyone has had to endure over the past year, or year plus, I should say, I've never thought in my life being in DC for over 20 years that people were simpatico with the notion of a CR, that could go a yearlong, to give our audience an idea of the depth and breadth of the situation we're looking at. It's a situation that I have not seen before.
Brendan Curry: The other thing is, is that if we did have a government shutdown, and we've had them, sadly, almost routinely since the mid-'90s. If we had a shutdown right now, it would be historic in terms of you had one party in charge of the White House, the Senate, and the House of Representatives. In the prior shutdowns, you had one party controlling the executive branch. You had another party controlling the legislative branch.
Brendan Curry: That's propelling the immediacy of trying to avert that right now within the next few hour.
Casey Dreier: Yeah. I think even if for the space angle, too, a shutdown would impact preparations of the launch of the Lucy spacecraft right now down at Kennedy Space Center, which has a three-week window. But you don't want to lose days unnecessarily to launch something into space. There are real consequences of this from a very practical space level, not to mention just at the broader contract disruption of planning, and also just taking up people's time and attention away from focusing on the actual work of getting things to go into space.
Brendan Curry: Occasionally, you and I have always joked about the fact that orbital mechanics doesn't care about the congressional schedule.
Casey Dreier: Yeah. Yeah. Unfortunately, it doesn't go on pause when congress says. Okay. That's the CR. That seems to be, at the time we're recording this, looks like it'll be doing okay. There's two other big pieces of legislation that I think we need to treat as a unit. One of them will have money for NASA, the other one doesn't. We're talking about the infrastructure and the reconciliation bills. These are two bills that are large parts of President Biden's domestic agenda, includes a lot of Democratic issues.
Casey Dreier: But from what you alluded to, I think, the reason that we're having such an uncertainty around both of these is that even though the democrats control both houses and congress and the presidency, they have a very, very, very as narrow as it gets in the senate, the 50 plus 1 of the vice president vote. Corralling everyone on exactly the same page. That's the tough part for what is, I'd say, arguably quite an ambitious domestic agenda. These are big things are trying to pass with these bills.
Casey Dreier: But let's just touch on the NASA aspect. There's nothing that I see, correct me if I'm wrong, in the infrastructure build. This is stuff for building roads and bridges and so forth across the country, which at the moment seems to have a relatively broad bipartisan support. The reconciliation bill, which gets its name from a ... maybe you can correct me ... is some ... it's not necessarily, it's a bureaucratic leverage ability that of 50 vote majority can't be filibustered by passing some funding legislation.
Brendan Curry: Yeah. The reconciliation, for our newer listeners, our existing listeners know, I'm an old house guy. Reconciliation is a legislative mechanism or vehicle that originates out of the senate. The senate has these incredibly arcane and byzantine parliamentary and procedural rules. Reconciliation is a vehicle to enable tax measures to be implemented, which means the tax writing committees and the house and the senate have to find ways to pay for things.
Brendan Curry: They are then passed over to various authorizing committees dealing with parts of the federal government that said authorizing committees have oversight over. I'm getting way into DC talk. I apologize. I don't want to say it's a gimmick. But it's a break glass in case of emergency type of situation.
Casey Dreier: Because it allows them to pass in the senate. The filibuster you need at this point, it's the regular. You need basically 60 senators to agree to pass legislation by standard process in the senate. In a 50-50 senate, the minority party can stop legislation if they want to.
Brendan Curry: The tyranny of the minority is what's called.
Casey Dreier: This has been used for a number of big pieces. I believe the Republicans used it to pass their tax legislation in 2017.
Brendan Curry: Yep.
Casey Dreier: Where the Democrats used it to pass the American healthcare bill in 2010.
Brendan Curry: Yep.
Casey Dreier: They can write things in a way to avoid filibustering. But there's only so many things that can fit in there. It's usually has to deal with spending and taxation, as you said.
Brendan Curry: Yeah. Part of the issue is that there's been attempts to glom on other things to reconciliation, which for some reason, the senate parliamentarian is the most powerful person on the planet right now.
Casey Dreier: Because they get to decide what counts. What ...
Brendan Curry: They're the head ref on the field right now making the call. It's excruciating on a variety of levels. The other thing is that it short-circuits the appropriators and they're not happy about it.
Casey Dreier: These are the people who usually fund the government on an annual basis that we're generally focused on here at The Planetary Society, the appropriators, the CJS, or Commerce Justice Science subcommittee.
Brendan Curry: Yes. Yes. As Casey, you and I have talked, the House Appropriations Committee kicked out over the summer, a CJS bill, that included a really good NASA number, but the problem was the CJS, the J stands for the Justice Department. There was a whole host of things regarding community policing, and things like that, and which police departments get grant money, and what's the metric for why they deserve it. It's a political hot potato.
Brendan Curry: That's why CJS never made it to the house floor. In the senate, they haven't even marked up their CJS approach bill. As you and I've talked, what I'm hearing is they may just post the senate CJS approach bill, which includes NASA, not even have a committee markup just to essentially draw a line in the sand and take it from there.
Casey Dreier: The reconciliation bill basically doesn't even address the normal appropriations.
Brendan Curry: Correct.
Casey Dreier: These are all new programs. It's paired with this infrastructure bill for a political reason. Again, it's trying to keep this very fragile, very narrow caucus of the Democrats together. A lot of people won't vote for one unless they get the other one voted first, and so forth and so on. But again, from a NASA perspective, what we're looking at here, there's nothing for NASA in this infrastructure package.
Casey Dreier: However, in the reconciliation bill as written, which is, as you will, I'm sure say is changing probably by the minute what could or could not be in that reconciliation concept. My understanding is that there's roughly four billion in change for NASA. There's four billion for ... Ironically, there's no money for NASA in the infrastructure bill, but there's $4 billion of infrastructure funding for NASA in the reconciliation bill, which would actually be just wonderful. That's to be spent over 10 years.
Casey Dreier: That's a huge, basically doubling NASA's infrastructure account over the next 10 years. They get roughly 350, 400 million a year for their infrastructure, general infrastructure account. To double that, theoretically, could do a lot for NASA's capabilities on the ground.
Brendan Curry: Don't forget, for our loyal listeners, that NASA administrator was a former senator and former member of the house. He's severely aware of the infrastructure. The infrastructure problems that NASA centers, but being from Florida, the Kennedy Space Center, you have these national assets that were built before I was born.
Casey Dreier: A long time ago.
Brendan Curry: Yeah. I think Mat, at the time was, probably in his big wheel or something like that.
Mat Kaplan: Thanks [crosstalk 00:35:51] Yeah. Appreciate that.
Casey Dreier: ... infrastructure.
Brendan Curry: Yeah. We're talking about leaky roofs. It's nothing exotic.
Mat Kaplan: Roads and ... Yeah.
Brendan Curry: It's nothing exotic. It literally is making sure the VAB at KSC has a new roof type stuff.
Mat Kaplan: Yeah. Vertical Assembly Building, of course.
Casey Dreier: If anyone wants to be a total hipster NASA budget person, I consider myself. My favorite part is reading through the infrastructure section of the NASA budget request, because it's just totally fascinating what they're asking for. Because it's like exactly, repairing roofs, replacing a road, repairing bridges, or with the VAB, taking out all the asbestos from the 1960s, it's that level of stuff that we're talking about.
Casey Dreier: NASA is one of actually the largest owners of infrastructure in the federal government, despite being on the smaller side of the federal agency.
Brendan Curry: I was talking with a brigadier general, and he was saying the base that he has command over needs new water pipes. He said, "Big air force is telling him, they don't have enough hangar space for their jets. You're having war-fighter aircraft being left out into the elements. Those things are taking priority over something as mundane as sewage lines and things like that at air force bases."
Brendan Curry: It's not just NASA. I'm not beating up on NASA or something like that. It's a congenital problem with government installations.
Mat Kaplan: Not just government. Not just federal government. We know that plenty of evidence that infrastructure across the United States is desperately in need of repair, renovation. Yeah. NASA is just one piece of this.
Casey Dreier: Yeah. Entropy, man, you just can't get around it. Just going back to this reconciliation package that has been proposed. There's $4 billion for NASA infrastructure. There's a few 100 million for, I think, climate science, and some very pithy little amounts for a few extra research areas. Oddly enough, 5 million for the inspector general's office, which keeps NASA honest, as an internal oversight for NASA activities and contracts.
Casey Dreier: But originally, you talked about senator or administrator, Bill Nelson, he had actually asked for a lot more than $4 billion for NASA in this bill. This is, at the moment, a $3.5 trillion over 10 years package. NASA got $4 in change billion over 10 years. He had actually proposed initially almost 16 billion that included infrastructure, but also money for a second selection of a human landing system that is currently in legal limbo, between Blue Origin and SpaceX.
Casey Dreier: They didn't get it. I thought that was an interesting outcome. Do you have thoughts on where the congressional pushback has been on getting a second lunar lander funding to support a second lunar lander system? Is that just completely out of the cards?
Brendan Curry: I think there's going to be pressure to do something. Earlier this week, I was told that there's been essentially some several million dollars in what I would say euphemistically as study money for the teams that did not get the HLS contract to pacify them for the time being. We shall see. It's a sticky wicket.
Casey Dreier: It seems some of the Democrats in the House of Representatives are pretty skeptical about having a second selection, looking at previous statements. I wonder if that's why you didn't see it in the ... because there's the house Democrats released the reconciliation after bill with the money for NASA.
Brendan Curry: Yeah. I mean, that's a political hot potato. I mean, I know where The Planetary Society. We're not the military space society. But yesterday on the house side, House Armed Services Committee had the Secretary of Defense, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, and the Commander of CENTCOM called on the carpet with respect to what happened in Afghanistan. The ranking Republican is from Northern Alabama, right next to his congressional lapel pin was a Space Force pin.
Brendan Curry: The Colorado delegation had just fired off a letter saying, "Cease and desist. Don't send this to Alabama. Review it. Review it. Review it. Review it."
Mat Kaplan: You're talking about the headquarters for Space Force. There's still this fight going on, was given ...
Casey Dreier: A space command. Yeah.
Mat Kaplan: ... to space command.
Brendan Curry: The point I'm trying to make with that is that the ranking member from Alabama on the Armed Services Committee is Republican. The top Coloradan is a Republican on that committee, and he wants it. It's an intra-party fight. I mean, this whole thing about HLS, I mean, there's a lot of drama going on in the space business in Washington. It's not necessarily everyone gets this idea that everything is Republican versus Democrat. It's much more nuanced, and it's much more deep.
Casey Dreier: There's the parochial aspect. I guess, in a sense, that's what happens when things happen. We're setting up new programs, new armed services are coming in, all these new things are happening in space. The establishment of new things is not necessarily an easy or straightforward process.
Mat Kaplan: Correct me if I'm wrong. But the development of the human landing system is still on hold on. SpaceX may be proceeding somewhat on their own. But at least as far as NASA is concerned, it has to be held up. Okay. Yes. Correct. You're signaling to me. I did see that in court. Apparently, attorneys for NASA have had some pretty strong language for Blue Origin to contest their contesting of this award to SpaceX exclusively.
Mat Kaplan: One wonders as that 2024 return to the moon fades even further into the distance, when we're going to be able to launch that human landing system toward its target?
Casey Dreier: Yeah. Nominally, I think we're looking at a November resolution, perhaps, to some of this legal issue. Obviously, we will see. I mean, that again, that's this other layer beyond the political layer. Even without the funding, you can see Blue Origin, pushing out a variety of levers here to try to move that forward.
Brendan Curry: Don't forget SpaceX, Starlink, and Amazon Kuiper are having it out at the FCC. Again, that's not in our ball of wax. But this is mobster warfare right now.
Casey Dreier: Let's go back to our two big bills, or infrastructure and reconciliation. We won't go into all the ups and downs. Those are very much in debate. I think, I wanted to discuss them mainly to say, when you're hearing ... If anyone's listening to this, and then watching the news, or following news and wondering all of this debate. I think we really have to see this, again, through the lens of this is part of a very ambitious domestic agenda by the Biden administration trying to work through the slimmest of political majorities.
Casey Dreier: That means individual senators in particular have an exceeding amount of power to sink or enable legislation to move through. I guess my larger point of this is that this is all happening now. But there's an additional wrinkle to this. This is the debt ceiling, which is I promise connected to these things, and one more thing to keep in track. Brendan, very quickly, the debt ceiling.
Brendan Curry: Okay. You and I talk about such tantalizing topics.
Casey Dreier: This is ... Yeah. The beautiful aspect ... This is why we all get into space.
Brendan Curry: Yeah. Yes.
Casey Dreier: That ceiling breach.
Brendan Curry: You'll hear it called the debt ceiling, the debt limit. It's basically the amount of money the US government can borrow to meet social security commitments, Medicare, military salaries, that kind of thing. Every so often, it's if you have a credit card, and you go to your credit card company and say, "Hey. I have a $3,000 limit. I got a big trip coming up, or my kids getting married, or whatever."
Brendan Curry: He raised it to 5,000, or 10,000, or something like that. That's the quick and dirty version of what that is.
Casey Dreier: With the one quirk being that you would go to the credit card company having already spent the money. That's the thing that's really important here is that credit limit ...
Brendan Curry: You're obligated. You're already obligated.
Casey Dreier: You've already committed to spending the money. This is merely ... It's this weird quirk that we won't go into the history of why this exists. But it is merely to allow the treasury to pay for the things we've already obligated to ourselves. It's one of those things where if we violate that, I think constitutionally, we have to honor our debts, and it's this big ... It'd be a disaster if we didn't do it.
Brendan Curry: Well, the financial markets would tank across the planet.
Casey Dreier: Yeah. It would not be ...
Brendan Curry: Casey, you made the reference to the constitution. That's where the term full faith and credit comes from. We go through this ballet in congress every so often about raising the debt limit. In the end, everyone eventually gives up the ghost and votes to increase it. It was supposed to expire, I think, this week.
Brendan Curry: Then Secretary Yellen sent a memo to congress saying, "Hey, everything's cool in the gang. We can coast till October 18, that lowers the temperature for congressional leaders on that issue, and gives them some breathing room to address a CR infrastructure reconciliation and other things. Oh, by the way, the senate still has a ton of Biden nominations they have to confirm."
Casey Dreier: But the reason why debt ceiling is particularly relevant to ... Again, this all trickles. We have to pop back down the stack to where this hits NASA. Is that it tends to be a political issue. Even though no one wants to breach it ... Let's say the Republican party now is refusing to vote to raise it, which means that the Democrats have to do it with 50 votes, which means they'd have to do it through reconciliation.
Casey Dreier: It's a way to throw off the wheels of the reconciliation package, is my understanding of it, which then makes that more complicated politically for the Democrats trying to pass it, which then impacts the infrastructure bill, which then impacts NASA's infrastructure potential. It's throwing a wrench into the cogs of the reconciliation process in an attempt, I would say, to stymie the Biden domestic agenda, which is why this is all ... the big picture of why this is all happening.
Casey Dreier: Obviously, not to stop NASA funding, but it's this bigger issue stuff.
Brendan Curry: Yeah. Yeah. No. I mean, this is an entire political calculus. NASA, thankfully, is not being held up as a hostage to a certain degree. All of us listening right now, we're all going to blink, and we're going to find ourselves careening into the 2022 congressional election cycle. This is on the Democrat side, trying to throw a Hail Mary to get a very ambitious domestic agenda dragged across the finish line.
Brendan Curry: On the Republican side, there are a lot of vulnerable dems in the house and senate that are up next year. It's trying to box them into take terrible votes that can be used against them in little over a year from now.
Casey Dreier: Yeah.
Mat Kaplan: Wheels within wheels as always in DC. I mean, it occurs to me that ...
Brendan Curry: In Dune, it's plots within plots, I think.
Mat Kaplan: Yeah.
Casey Dreier: Yeah.
Mat Kaplan: Yeah. You need the spice to find your way through. I'm reminded that the vote regarding the continuing resolution today, there were 35 votes against giving money to allow the United States federal government to continue working. But we have to keep in mind, those 35 senators, they probably knew this was going to pass. But now they can go back to their constituents and Cs and say, "Look what I did to try and be fiscally responsible."
Mat Kaplan: It is so fascinating. Should we be pleased, at least in all of this, that through all of these machinations, NASA, space is still bipartisan?
Casey Dreier: That's my cold comfort that I ... Yeah. I mean, I think that's always really important. But also, again, I think it's important for us space advocates to remember how much of NASA's fortunes are tied to these broader, very intense, often extremely partisan machinations, and currents that are very hard to fight against. Everyone agrees NASA needs more infrastructure funding. But because it's part of this larger thing, it seems unlikely that ... who knows if that'll happen.
Casey Dreier: All of this is happening in the next month. That's the point of why we're talking about this. Even if we get the CR extension, we still have the reconciliation and infrastructure. We still have the debt limit. While all this is sucking up all the oxygen out of the room from, Brendan, what you brought up earlier, the actual appropriations that we are generally ... That we wouldn't advocate it for virtually at the beginning of the year as we can think back that far.
Casey Dreier: I think there's a function of when things become so intense like this, is anything actually happening on the appropriation side? Do you think? Or is everyone really focused on the immediate needs, the political intensity?
Brendan Curry: Well, the house CJS subcommittee can say ...
Casey Dreier: They did their job.
Brendan Curry: They did their job. The second act is going to be seeing what the CJS approach subcommittee on the senate coughs up. Then we'll have a better lay of the land.
Casey Dreier: Maybe if we're lucky, we'll see something from the senate in November, let's say. One way or another, they resolved the reconciliation stuff and the debt limit, then it seems perhaps November might have some breathing room for the senate to work for the CR expires in December?
Brendan Curry: They'll definitely have a shot clock on them that everyone's going to be paying attention to. But again, I still sadly go back to this scenario of it would be easier, and I don't ... I hate saying that. The easier thing would be, "Let's go to March. CR to March. By then Biden will have coughed up his budget request to congress for the FY '23. See how that pairs." The situation in congress is, as you alluded to repeatedly, Casey, the Democrat majority is so thin.
Brendan Curry: Historically, whatever political party has the White House in that presidencies first term, historically, during that midterm, two years after that president takes office, that political party takes a beating in congress. You have a, at best, five-vote majority in the house. You literally have a one vote majority in the senate. It's in extremist in terms of a Democratic calculation right now.
Brendan Curry: The Republicans are sitting back and just eating the popcorn right now. It's a wacky situation. Of course, we've got the whole Space Council thing being reactivated on the executive branch side of things. There's a lot going on.
Mat Kaplan: I've said it before, what a way to run a superpower. Speaking of National Space Council, is it still set to gather again for the first time during the Biden administration toward the end of the year?
Brendan Curry: Well, Casey and I had been talking about this. There was efforts to have a fall meeting. The Space Council for our new listeners usually has this thing called ... it an ancillary entity called the User Advisory Group. The Space Council is populated by the NASA administrator, the secretary of commerce, a lot of cabinet level officials whose departments and agencies deal with space.
Brendan Curry: The User Advisory Group is nongovernmental people who tried to provide helpful input for the Space Council. Two weeks ago, word went out that they're accepting applications for the User Advisory Group. But the deadline for submission was September 27th. Then late last week, they said, "Oh, no. Deadline is now October 29th."
Brendan Curry: If you're still going to be taking applications till essentially November and have to vet them and go through them and say, "You're on the team. No. You got cut, et cetera, et cetera." I don't know how you do a formal Space Council meeting unless it's really thrown together. The vice president, her plate is full with a whole bunch of other stuff and she is the chair of the National Space Council.
Brendan Curry: I don't know how much she's going to be able to devote to that. It may be more of something that drifts into the new calendar year.
Casey Dreier: The big takeaway is ... I follow this professionally, and I can barely keep up with what's happening. Brendan, you're there in person. You have a slightly more advantage to see the intense ups and downs. But we are in a sense going to be almost witnesses to what happens over the next few months pushing where we can to talk about our priorities, but it's a very intense time. Space is not high on the docket list, at least in the NASA area, until we get through this big thing coming up.
Casey Dreier: If you're listening and you're confused about what's happening, you're not alone. We will continue to follow this. Brendan, I want to thank you again for coming with us and explaining this today. We will have you back on if we win.
Brendan Curry: Our poor listeners. Actually just breaking news, the president is signing the CR right now.
Mat Kaplan: As we speak.
Brendan Curry: Yeah.
Mat Kaplan: Wow. Okay.
Casey Dreier: Launch that down. One thing ticked off the list, we just got the other stuff to deal with. We will talk about it on future episodes of the Space Policy edition. Thanks for joining us on the What is Crazy Happening in Congress Special Edition, and Brendan for coming to us and sharing your expertise and experience.
Brendan Curry: I love being with you guys.
Mat Kaplan: Brendan, you say our poor listeners, I think that they count themselves fortunate as I do that I get to talk to both of you guys and that you are looking out for we space geeks out here as we try to follow and maybe even have a little bit of influence over what is happening there in Washington, DC, where you live and where you have been active, as you said for over 20 years. Thank you so much for all you do, and for joining us today.
Brendan Curry: Thanks for having me.
Mat Kaplan: Casey, I think we can wrap this one up. Maybe by reminding everybody again, you've just heard a more than adequate demonstration of why it is so important to have representation there within the Beltway. We're happy to provide that based on your support. Planetary.org/join is where you can become a member if you're not already. If you are already, then thank you so much for enabling these two guys to continue to represent our interests there.
Mat Kaplan: Report back to us on everything that's going on and help us try, at least try to understand it. Casey, you can get the final word here.
Casey Dreier: Oh, thanks, Mat. We will be back in November. We will see if the congress is still standing by that point and we will uncover that and we'll go into a deeper more fun, broad policy topic, I think for that one, too.
Mat Kaplan: Casey Dreier and Brendan Curry. The policy and politics people and advocacy folks at The Planetary Society. Once again, thanks for joining us. I will be with you, of course, every week with the weekly Planetary Radio. Comes out every Wednesday morning. We've got some great stuff coming up. Hope you will be back with us again. We think, we hope on the first Friday in November to talk more on the Space Policy edition of Planetary Radio. Thanks again for joining us. Ad astra.