Planetary Radio • Jul 07, 2023

Space Policy Edition: What’s Going on with: Congress, MSR, and FAA Reauthorization?

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Jack kiraly portrait 2023

Jack Kiraly

Director of Government Relations for The Planetary Society

Casey dreier tps mars

Casey Dreier

Chief of Space Policy for The Planetary Society

Sarah al ahmed headshot

Sarah Al-Ahmed

Planetary Radio Host and Producer for The Planetary Society

We check in on the congressional budget process for NASA, Mars Sample Return’s spiraling cost growth, and the impending end of the regulatory holiday for human commercial space launch companies. Jack Kiraly, director of government relations for The Planetary Society, joins host Casey Dreier to provide the latest insight and analysis on these issues.

A Full Moon Rising Near the U.S. Capitol
A Full Moon Rising Near the U.S. Capitol A full Moon rises behind the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, DC.Image: NASA/Joel Kowsky


Casey Dreier: Welcome to this month's Space Policy Edition. I am Casey Dreier, the chief of Space Policy here at The Planetary Society. Thank you for joining us. This month we will be talking about a grab bag of topics. This is the summer here, it's nice and warm, at least in this latitude of the world. And it seemed like a good time to check in on a variety of issues with my colleague and friend, Jack Kiraly, our director of government relations here at The Planetary Society. Jack, how you doing?

Jack Kiraly: I'm doing great, Casey. How are you?

Casey Dreier: It's a lot going on in my life that we'll talk about next month, but yes, I'm doing great. We're working hard. We're signing people up for the Day of Action, which is a plug here that we might as well mention coming up in September and otherwise just enjoying the 4th of July and the warm weather that we're getting. But there's a lot happening in space and particularly on the congressional front, there's been some advancements, and we talked about this last month in terms of the debt ceiling. But let's refresh, I wanted to check in with you, Jack, you're based in Washington DC. You're out on the Capitol.

Jack Kiraly: I am.

Casey Dreier: You're out in the offices. You're out there functionally every day. Stuff seems to be happening, but nothing is... We don't have hard numbers yet. So I wanted to check in, where are we on the fiscal year 2024 budget for NASA?

Jack Kiraly: So a lot has happened in just the last month, which I think was the last time that we checked in, albeit it was in person-

Casey Dreier: That's right.

Jack Kiraly: ... When you were in DC, the Congress was in session for, I believe in unprecedented seven weeks stretch starting in April, and it just recently ended in mid-June. They're on recess right now for the 4th of July holiday. In that time, since the last episode, we finally have allocations for all of the subcommittees within the appropriations committees. So these are the pots of money now, the 12 pots of money that agencies like NASA will be drawing from before the September 30th deadline to fund the federal government.

Casey Dreier: Just to stop there for a second. Allocations, these are everyone's favorite, 302(b)s, of course, for all of you subsection followers there. And just to emphasize here, so we have this full agreement from the debt limit of about $700 billion to fund all non-defense, what's called non-defense discretionary funding. And I always like to point out the 700 billion is out of roughly what? 6 trillion that's going to be spent this year, most of it mandatory spending. So this is the discretionary part. It's about a sixth of overall amount of US spending, but this is what Congress grapples with every year. And so they grapple with this. The head of appropriations, this is where they get their power from, the chair and the ranking member of appropriations. They dole out to every subcommittee how much money they have to work with. And this is that zero-sum moment that CJS, our favorite subcommittee, Commerce, Justice and Science that funds NASA, now has, at least on the Senate side and on the House side, a chunk of money. It says, "Here you are. This is what you have to work with to fund all of your agencies." Commerce department, justice department, National Science Foundation, NASA, and few other very small little things beyond that. So they just wanted to jump in, so they have their money. And how did you feel about these allocations?

Jack Kiraly: It was great that we finally had them. I think last time that we talked there was a lot of uncertainty and a lot of anxiety around these numbers, and here's the thing, this wasn't just us at The Planetary Society concerned with NASA's budget. This was everybody, part of any advocacy organization or general interest organization that cares about the federal government spending money. Without the 302(b) allocations, the US Congress cannot allocate funds. And that means on September 30th, government shut down. Government can't continue to function. For us here at The Planetary Society, we care about NASA's funding. So this was great to see that. However, looking back at previous 302(b) allocations, I think this might be the largest discrepancy between the House and Senate allocations, 302(b) allocations probably since 302(b) allocations became a thing. For CJS in particular, it's about $11 billion difference between the House and the Senate allocations for CJS. And now, I will say caveat, we have not seen bill text. This is one of five or six bills that has not dropped yet, that we do not know any details besides what the top line 302(b) allocation for that subcommittee is. All the stuff that we care about, the actual line items of how much money is going to be spent on science, how much money is going to be spent on NASA as a whole, is all up for grabs right now.

Casey Dreier: The size of the pie is smaller.

Jack Kiraly: Much smaller. I mean, between fiscal year 24 and 23, so the last year's allocations. We're remaining a little bit below that. If you take the Senate number, which right now is just under 70 billion for CJS in 2013, that number, was about-

Casey Dreier: It's about 82.

Jack Kiraly: ... 82 to 85, somewhere in there.

Casey Dreier: And then the House, of course, went lower. I think that's the big takeaway. The big surprise for me is that after this debt limit deal, the House actually said, "Well, that's a ceiling. We don't actually have to spend all that money." And they went for a very severe limitation on that expenditures down to what they had originally proposed, at least on the further right side of the House caucus to fiscal year 22 levels. And the way that they distributed it was uneven. And their CJS allocation was about 59 billion, which is represented about almost a 30% cut from what they worked with in 2023.

Jack Kiraly: Right. The last time CJS was below $60 billion. Now, there is a caveat here that, we'll mention this. The last time the CJS allocation was below $60 billion was for fiscal year 2018. So a completely different time than what we live in now. Buying power of the US dollars is completely different than it was in 2018. Now the caveat, I don't know Casey if you want to give the broad overview on that.

Casey Dreier: There's two caveats to this. One in particular to the House and then one that's general to both of them. So I'd say the caveat for the House is that these are their allocation numbers. And then what they kind of asterisk on top of that is, oh, and we're going to take other money that's not through this overall discretionary spending pot, by cutting what they characterize as wasteful Biden administration priorities and then backfilling that into their appropriations bills. So even though their total allocation is limited, they're going to do some, I'd say politically, insanely unfeasible at this point because Democrats also run the Senate in addition to the White House. But they say they're going to cut all of some of Biden's major priorities that have been passed in the last few years, take that money and backfill. And we saw that with a few of the bills that they have dropped. Again, it's not clear what they're going to do to what degree with CJS. My guess is that they'll try to get back up. And I think the chair of appropriations in the House that they're going to try to get back up to roughly within 1% of that discretionary spending limit of that $700 billion. So that's something, again, politically unfeasible, not realistic given the division of politics in Congress. Not to mention a veto from the White House. But it is an accounting issue, maybe a statement of, again, politics here. But the other big caveat, why don't you outline in the second caveat that actually applies to both the Senate and the House numbers.

Jack Kiraly: There is approximately $11 billion allocated already sort of as, we'll say, a stop gap measure passed in the last omnibus bill.

Casey Dreier: No, it was passed in the Fiscal Responsibility Act.

Jack Kiraly: Oh, it was in the Fiscal Responsibility Act. So even sooner, at the beginning of June with the passage of the Fiscal Responsibility Act, it allocated $11 billion to the Department of Commerce, essentially elevating their budget number by $11 billion. Meaning that these 302(b) allocations are kind of a soft number, so add $11 billion onto those. But all that money is essentially earmarked for the Department of Commerce. It can't be used for anything else within the CJS portfolio. But as a part of that Fiscal Responsibility Act, that $11 billion now takes a little bit of pressure off of what is maybe historic low for CJS allocations on both the House and the Senate side. So adding that $11 billion makes it seem a little bit more realistic. So that brings the Senate number up to about 80 billion, which is still below FY23 and brings the House version up to about 70 billion. So still, they're about 10 and a half billion apart at the end of the day. And that's where a lot of politics is going to happen to make sure that we can spend money and fund the federal government for fiscal year 2024.

Casey Dreier: And that's kind of the big question. They're going to be pretty far apart. And even if the total numbers with these backfilling cuts come in, that they'll add from, again, there's no way that the White House, much less the Senate will agree to cut their very major priorities that they just passed two years ago to do that. The key takeaway here is that the initial allocations looked a lot worse than they are. They're still not great though. And so, I want to emphasize what you just said with the Senate, even though the Senate, you add 11 billion to that, that's still a couple percentage points. It's not just 1%, it's a couple percentage points below what they had to work with in '23. This puts a ton of pressure. So just putting aside the Justice Department and the Commerce Department, which are big, chunky, like the FBI is part of the Justice Department. The Commerce Department has NOAA, the Commerce Department has all, even their space aspects of it, but they're just big things that we won't even really touch right now. The National Science Foundation is struggling to grow significantly, and this was one of these, the CHIPS and Science Act that passed the other last year authorized huge growth for National Science Foundation over the next 5 to 10 years. And so, the National Science Foundation completely separate from NASA, is also struggling to grow. NASA, I think they had been proposed as an 11% increase relative to 23. NASA had been proposed as a 7% increase, which was basically equal to inflation. So just between those two, Congress and these subcommittees can still give National Science Foundation and NASA their growth, but then that difference would have to then come out of the Department of Justice, or how many FBI agents do you cut? How many field offices do you remove? How many federal prisons do you close down functionally in order to pay for this? And you can start to see the political challenge of actually pursuing these cross pressured priorities. Because again, Congress already passed this authorization saying, we need to really double down investment, basic science and research to stay competitive in this global world that we're in. And then at the same time, they're actually cutting themselves off at the knees in order to be able to fund that. What always drives me a bit crazy is that people will say, "Oh, well, NASA and NSF, they should just do more with less." But you can't, you do less with less because you're paying for people and you're paying for highly trained, highly experienced, highly educated individuals. That labor force does not get cheaper over time. That labor force, in fact outpaces inflation in aggregate in terms of their total cost. If you're paying primarily for people and have less money, you'll just have fewer people doing science. And that's just no two ways about that.

Jack Kiraly: Absolutely. No, I completely agree. I mean, we can talk about the specific missions, but with a number of everything from flagship class all the way down to discovery and simplex missions, there is a lot that needs to happen in fiscal year 2024 to keep NASA on track to meet decadal priorities, but also to maintain NASA's preeminence as the world's leading space agency. And that is something that is across party lines, across ideologies, at least here in the United States, something that everybody can agree on. NASA's a thankfully one of these areas of the federal budget that is not politicized in the same way that Department of Commerce and DOJ can often be politicized. And now, it's really funny that we're talking about this now as I get a news alert on my phone about an article in Politico that I read this morning saying that there is a concerted effort within the House to limit DOJ spending for fiscal year 24. With the idea even to cut, I mean, the FBI is looking for a new headquarters. There's a lot of changes happening within the DOJ structure and a significant contingent within the House of Representatives wants to see a decrease in the DOJ budget, maybe a bigger decrease than other parts of the CJS portfolio. So there's a lot of interesting politics happening not directly with NASA, but things happening around NASA that are going to influence how much money NASA gets at the end of the day. Because this unprecedented growth that we've seen over the last 10 years for NASA's budget, NASA's sat between 31 and 35% of the CJS allocation goes to NASA, 31 to 35%. If that were on the 35% side, we would see a much smaller cut to NASA's spending power. We wouldn't see the $27 billion that the president's budget request lies out. But if it's closer to that 31% or it continues a downward trend of getting closer to 30%, then you do start seeing a bit more of a difficult situation for NASA.

Casey Dreier: When we even talk about NASA holistically, Congress can still preserve some programs and cut more deeply others. So this doesn't necessarily mean that NASA has to deal with and across the board cut. It almost certainly won't mean that. This is where it ultimately comes down to, we just do not know. And you can see just through what Jack, you just outlined, that the trade space in which these congressional committees are going to be working in is quite large in terms of what they're going to do, and it's very fascinating to see all these priorities bubbling to the surface trying to make them work. We had this interview obviously with Jean Tollison just a couple of months ago about this. She was in the Senate subcommittee staff for appropriations, how you balance this all out and this is the most work a day politicking that there is trying to build this coalition of everyone to get to yes on these bills in order to move them forward. But of course, at the end of the day, the huge discrepancy or even the political discrepancy between the House and the Senate, probably big sticking. There's probably a reason we haven't seen CJS bills drop yet because of these issues around the Department of Justice cuts that the House is searching for, that they're going to be so far apart that the question even becomes, are they resolvable? Because at the end of the day, the House and Senate drop a bill each, they have to conference that together, create a kind of fundamental broad agreement bill out of those two different House and Senate versions and then vote on that theoretically by September 30th before the next fiscal year. And so, this is where if they're really far apart and they can't get to anything, there's actually one more interesting consequence out of this Fiscal Responsibility Act, the debt limit deal that will kick in January. Which is that in the absence of a bill, and if they don't want to shut down the government, they do a continuing resolution, they just drag that Excel spreadsheet, sell to the right, just extend current spending. But if they don't have agreement, and I believe was it on all 12 subcommittee appropriations?

Jack Kiraly: That is correct. They'd have to pass all 12 of them in order for this, I guess, fail-safe not to be triggered.

Casey Dreier: That fail-safe basically is a 1% across the board cut to both defense and that key there is the cut to defense is the pain trigger generally for on the Republican side, they prefer more defense spending and that's supposed to be the motivator to avoid the situation to help drive that compromise. And same for Democrats. Again, largely speaking, there's obviously a broad range of those, but Democrats on non-defense betting. Basically that if we just get a yearlong continuing resolution for CJS or for NASA, you're looking at basically last year's budget minus 1% and then probably up to NASA to really figure out how that gets distributed at which point. In a sense, Congress has lost a lot of influence by not passing something right. So there's motivation to do it, but again, I think that we've been surprised before, but the dynamics of this current, particularly in the House of a very narrow House, a Republican majority with a very, let's say vigorous right wing minority who has a lot of power in that small majority to muck things up if they want to. And also, to undermine the leadership of Speaker McCarthy makes it difficult for me to see how we don't end up with a long-term CR. But again, I may be being too pessimistic at this point.

Jack Kiraly: No, don't look to me for any optimism on that because I wrote down my three outcomes I think are realistic and the most likely one I think is this continuing resolution at 99% of fiscal year 23 spending. Now, that at the end of the day actually is probably for NASA, we're just talking about NASA, not talking about the broad range of priorities within the federal budget is not the end of the world. We're talking a 1% decrease over fiscal year 23 gets NASA $25.1 billion, that is still $2 billion below the president's budget request, and it will then be up to NASA, like you said, to allocate those funds appropriately to Mars Sample Return, Europa Clipper, VERITAS, hopefully, Dragonfly, and the other priorities within the planetary science division. The other two outcomes are the House Republicans getting their way and it's that 58.6 billion plus the 11 billion for commerce. That's 20.1 or $20.9 billion for NASA, assuming everything stays constant or the Senate Democratic version, which gets us about 24.1 billion.

Casey Dreier: Yeah, interesting.

Jack Kiraly: There's a wide range of options and this is all just assuming about 30% of CJS is going to go to NASA. Now obviously there's some gradations there and NASA could win out with what's going out with DOJ. But really, at the end of the day, nobody's saying $27 billion for NASA is going to happen unfortunately. So it's maintaining course where we can and supporting the priorities within the decadal survey and our priorities here at The Planetary Society, which includes Mars Sample Return, Europa Clipper, Dragonfly, NEO Surveyor, VERITAS, all of these great missions that we need to keep on track before the end of the decade.

Mat Kaplan: Stay with us. When Casey and Jack return, they'll talk about the Mars Sample Return mission and discuss the need for regulation of the commercial space industry.

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Casey Dreier: This is a good opportunity to talk about one of those missions in a little more detail. I just had an article that I published on talking about this, and this was a request from our member community, by the way, which I had. If you're have yet to become a member of The Planetary Society, one of the benefits is you get to join this member community and respond to opportunities like I posted about topics that we could discuss on episodes like this, and this was one of them, it was Mars Sample Return. This project obviously is the highest priority from the scientific community for the planetary science community as put through their formal decal survey process through the National Academies. It's one of our highest priorities here at The Planetary Society. It's a goal for NASA for almost 50 years to return these precious samples. We're collecting samples right now on the surface of Mars, perseverance is, I should say, and the project itself is facing some interesting headwinds. Jack, why don't you kind of summarize what happened in the last month, I mean, this has been simmering, but let's say what was brought to fore in the last month about Mars Sample Return that we need to start thinking about here?

Jack Kiraly: Well, there was, we'll say a leaked report, I guess, is the way to put it.

Casey Dreier: A leaked estimate, maybe.

Jack Kiraly: A leaked estimate. Yeah, because, I mean, when you say report, especially in terms of government, it means a very specific thing, so it's more a leak estimate, you're right, indicating that Mars Sample Return was going to cost somewhere around 8 to $9 billion for its entire lifespan. And given the budgetary pressures facing NASA, 8 to $9 billion for a mission that was originally slated for 4 to $5 billion over its lifespan is a huge cost increase. Within this last month though, The Planetary Science Advisory Committee, which is NASA's formal structure for reporting out what they're working on and to the planetary science community, indicated that budget estimations range everywhere from that $5 billion to $9 billion really over its lifespan. We're in the middle of, and you can probably talk more about this, a unprecedented second independent review of Mars Sample Return in the normal structure of NASA going through the steps of initiating and formulating and executing a mission. Second independent review board does not usually happen, and I believe has never happened for a flagship mission of this size.

Casey Dreier: I don't think any mission, frankly, independent review happens when something's going bad and usually it's after the fact, after a postmortem for a mission about what went wrong. And they convened an independent review, basically a non-invested set of engineers to evaluate the original design plans years ago, in 2019, I believe for Mars Sample Return to say, "Are we ready to do this?" They said, "Yes." Turns out they maybe missed a few things or the complexity as most things the story grows in the telling. In response to this kind of sudden, and frankly a little bit unexplained still cost growth where we still don't exactly know where these sudden... We're spending north of a billion dollars a year on this mission at this point. That's an extraordinary, I mean, that's higher. That's like 50% more than James Webb Space Telescope ever spent in a single year. So what's happening to drive this? And so, I think there's this kind of triage situation where NASA's brought in this second independent review to say is what's going on here? This elite cost estimate, which again, I think bears some context. It's obviously not good. I'm not here to defend every action by either JPL or any of the other NASA centers that are doing this. NASA requested $950 million from our sample return in its fiscal year 2024 budget. It said that all future estimates beyond '24 were complete guesses and that the expected costs were likely to rise. It pointed out in this budget that it is delaying several other science missions in order to support Mars Sample Return. I think purposely maybe by creating obvious tension with other parts of the science community, notably in the heliophysics division, which is delaying one of their flagship missions in response to this, which unfortunately happens to be in the state that Jeanne Shaheen represents as the chair of appropriations in the US Senate, which is not a great situation to do. But what the weird thing is when administrator Bill Nelson of NASA appeared before Congress a few months ago, he actually said, "We need an extra 250 million on top of that 950 for Mars Sample Return." But then NASA didn't follow. The weirdest thing to me is that then when people asked about this both to Lori Glaze, the Planetary Science Division chief and Nicky Fox, they go, "Oh, that's not an official NASA number." But they did not explain why, and I'm actually kind of shocked at this planetary PAC meeting that no one followed up. Well, where the hell did Nelson get that number from? He said this to Congress, this was official testimony to Congress that we need this extra money. And then suddenly they're like, "No, it's not official. We don't need it." What happened there? That was frankly bizarre. And so, you had this situation where NASA officials are saying that this is a non NASA number despite the NASA administrator saying that number.

Jack Kiraly: To Congress.

Casey Dreier: Yeah, to Congress. I don't know how much more official you get than that. That's my frustration.

Jack Kiraly: Yeah, it seems like a lot of the budgetary uncertainty is compounding on itself. Realistically, right now, nobody has a clear answer.

Casey Dreier: Yeah, I think that's-

Jack Kiraly: ... of how much Mars Sample Return is going to cost. And that's not a bad thing. I don't want to say that NASA not knowing how much they need beyond fiscal year 2024 is inherently a bad thing. The bad thing is when that number so visibly changes in the public eye in front of Congress, it starts to sow doubt in NASA's ability to manage this kind of mission. However, NASA is doing... And not to totally harp on NASA, but not to fully defend them. I'm trying to find that middle ground here, NASA has convened the second independent review board and it is going into a preliminary design review later this year, like Mars Sample Return. They are doing the things they need to figure out beyond fiscal year 2024 what the mission would need should they aim for a 2028 launch. I think as with many things in government and politics, as anybody at 9:00 PM on the first Tuesday in November can say waiting is the hardest part for a definitive answer on whether somebody won or lost an election, a bill passed or didn't pass, or a budget estimation is legitimate or not. And so, I think in this uncertainty, there's been a lot of people talking about specific numbers and cost estimates that vary widely over the lifespan of Mars Sample Return. And that uncertainty, again, is compounding on itself and Congress doesn't do very well with uncertainty, and I think for good reason, we look to the executive branch for leadership and for definitive actions and saying, this is how much something like Mars Sample Return is going to cost them. And the fact that we're in the middle of that process but yet need an answer kind of right now, obviously we have the fiscal year 2024 number, but Congress I think would benefit greatly. I think more so even than anybody in the planetary science community, anybody in the scientific community more broadly and even us here at The Planetary Society. I think Congress would benefit the most from this second independent review. So I'm just very thankful that we'll hopefully have that answer before that September 30th deadline to fund the government. But as we were just talking about, it is very likely that Congress will push that off until December. I mean, they've done that essentially every year for the past five plus years, where we have a continuing resolution from October 1 through some time in mid-December, and that's when they'll pass all 12 appropriations bills. But given the political context, divided government and narrow majorities in both chambers, everyone likes to talk about the narrow majority in the House, five votes, which is smaller than the membership of the Freedom Caucus, so that's where a lot of that power is coming from. But you also have a very small majority in the Senate as well. We're talking about two votes. It could really swing either way. You have multiple senators who are on both the Democratic and Republican side concerned about federal spending. So what happens next? Tune in to find out.

Casey Dreier: Adding some context, and you brought up a couple of points I want to just emphasize here that I think are important in this, which is I want to bring out our Douglas Adams "Don't Panic" sign for the planetary science community. So the worries are these, and this is from a congressional perspective to your point of uncertainty. The first part of this discussion, we're setting up a situation where there's going to have to start being consequences and trade-offs at this point. This harsh prioritization is going to have to start to happen, and I think Congress wants to know, does NASA have their plan? Is this going to be worth the sacrifices that it's going to take to do Mars Sample Return? And the sacrifices are different if it costs 7 billion versus 10 billion. I think they need to have that clarity and confidence in NASA that they've got their stuff together for this exploration, but it's also a big uncertainty for the planetary science community. Again, we started this year talking about VERITAS, which the total cost of VERITAS is going to be less about one year of Mars Sample Return spending, right? Again, we're seeing these smaller missions being placed under an enormous amount of pressure, and I should clarify, it's not even from Mars Sample Return yet. It's from other problems in the planetary science portfolio or other new missions. The growth, the addition of NEO Surveyor, which now costs 1.6 billion instead of the original 600 million that we thought it was going to be. Increases in the cost of Dragonfly, increases in the cost of Psyche, which missed its launch date. Those are actually driving the delays that we're seeing now. Mars Sample Return is budgeted in through '24, and we've seen significant growth, and you could say at a very rough level, two thirds of the cost of Mars Sample Return can be attributed to growth in the planetary science division budget. It's not completely that simple, but it's a rough way. It's like a lot of money has been added to accommodate this. The worry is that, as you said, the longer term than the last 10 years to build this and will cost continue to spiral. In a big flagship mission like this, things tend to not get cheaper over time. Your costs tend to grow beyond what you think, and it's also... But again, this is what is kind of supposed to happen, and this is the point of my article that I published for context is, it's a bit technical, but I think it's worth understanding that NASA's structure in terms of how it designs spacecraft are broken into two big sections, formulation and implementation. Formulation is when they sit down. It's like when you're sitting with an architect to design a House, you want to design the blueprints and make all of the decisions while everything you're doing is traded on paper. You're not figuring out what door knobs to use when you have 10, 20 contractors sitting around waiting for you to finish your decision when you're building a House, you want to figure that out before when the overall number of people on your project is lower and the full consequences of your design changes. That's what formulation is, and that's what Mars Sample Return is. Why NASA doesn't release formally cost estimates at this point is because what they're doing, and they talked about this at the PAC, what's happening now is that they're going through these design changes mostly on paper, and then they have two separate companies doing two independent cost reviews on the scope of the project. And so, the point from NASA is that there's multiple cost reviews happening. There's multiple basically project scopes being considered, and all we know from this one leaked number is the number. We don't know what it accounted for. We don't know whether it was a delayed. Mars Sample Return will sound a lot more expensive if it's delayed by two or four years into the future because you carry that forward, even if it lowers the annual costs. We don't know if it contained the same launch date. We don't know if it had the same project scope. All we know is the number and we don't know what the other numbers are, and I think what we're starting to see is actually some knives come out for this mission and selective leaking happening to create this level of uncertainty about this. I don't think that's too conspiratorially minded, but this is a lot of pressure, I think a lot of worry based on the JWST experience. So it's not a full exoneration of what's happening. I want to make that clear. I think we are doing explanation of why this is growing out of scope so fast that it's even with a big European contribution and it's not just at JPL, we're seeing a huge increase in growth for the contribution from Goddard, which is the sample containment capture system on the European spacecraft. Marshall is managing the launch vehicle, JPL's building the lander and the helicopters to sample this, so it's like this massive multi-agency, multi NASA center project. It's going to be somewhat inefficient by design, it's like the Artemis of planetary science missions. It's designed to have this political base. But the consequences is that we're in this period of formulation where they're trying to lock in this design, and you said with the second independent review board, I think we'll add that clarity and NASA will know what to ask for. You have to put in time to understand what your design is before you can even attempt to estimate it. Like most people, I've been to the NASA Cost and Schedule Symposium every year for the last five years, and it's one of those things where estimating projects like this are just insanely difficult, particularly something as big as Mars Sample Return that has at some sense, some emergent level of complexity that comes out of it. It's very hard to estimate the cost of something that has never been done before. Let's add one more piece of context to this and then we can move on to the next topic, which is what the decadal survey actually says about Mars Sample Return. It's super clear when you read the decadal survey, again, this is the official consensus from the scientific community that NASA is directed to take into consideration for its planning. It says, "Mars Sample Return is of fundamental strategic importance to the United States," not even just to NASA, to the United States, "And it should be done right now without a loss of scope as soon as possible." That's what they say. At the time, they were working with an assumed budget of around 5 to 6 billion, and they gave two conditions. They said if it either increases above total cost of 20% above that estimate, so 6.5, 7 billion, or it threatens to consume more than 30% of full funding for the planetary science division in a single year. It doesn't say cancel the mission. It doesn't even say to delay it, it says that NASA should go and get more money from Congress, which is like, I guess, great. It's easier said than done as we know, particularly in this situation, but the recommendation from the community itself is very clear. This is the priority, it's worth doing now, and if it gets more expensive, you still figure out a way to do it.

Jack Kiraly: Figure out a way to pay for it.

Casey Dreier: And try to support the balance of... I mean, at the end of the day, it doesn't give any guidance to say if they can't secure the money what to do, but I think that's a notable omission. It does not say cancel the mission. It's an interesting spot we find ourselves in for this mission.

Jack Kiraly: To say the least.

Casey Dreier: To say the least, but it would be very heartbreaking to me to see those samples wither away on the surface of Mars for the rest of my natural life waiting to be taken back and some people used to say, "Oh, SpaceX astronauts or something can grab them" or I'd say that's maybe far more technical leap than I'm willing to assume will happen. Some people are more optimistic.

Jack Kiraly: Well, much more is much easier said than done.

Casey Dreier: Much easier said than done.

Jack Kiraly: And we can say that about a number of the, I think commentary proposals, I'll call them. The things, oh, well, I know how to do Mars Sample Return, all you got to do is... And we need to be mindful that yes, this is something that's never been done. Only two existing nations today have landed on the surface of Mars and neither one of them-

Casey Dreier: Success of the company.

Jack Kiraly: These are multidisciplinary, even within your own government multilateral endeavors to land on the surface of Mars, let alone launch something from the surface of Mars and hashtag bring them home. And this is just something that it's kind of a hurry-up and wait scenario right now, I guess, is what I think we can all agree on. I think regardless of your feelings on Mars Sample Return, it is we just need to wait for a formal cost estimate from NASA and then the politics comes after that. But you're right, the planetary science decadal is very clear this is the number one priority. And here's the thing, members of Congress are on the hill and their staff understand that, and they understand that Mars Sample Return has been a priority for the planetary science community since the 1970s and that this is finally coming to fruition. We just have to do it right and NASA's making the steps to do it right. We just need to follow through at this point.

Casey Dreier: Yeah. Good time to transition to our last topic today. This was suggested by a number of commentators in the planetary science member community at the prompt of this question about topics this month. It's a little beyond what we normally talk about, but I think there's some interesting developments that have occurred around it, which is the idea of this exploration of the so-called learning period for commercial space flight regulations, particularly for humans going into space that is from the FAA, the regulatory body that approves rocket launches. They've been under this ongoing, I think more than a decade, I think so-called learning period that's been extended several times by Congress, which is in a sense kind of a very relatively light regulatory touch in terms of the safety requirements and other kind of reporting requirements for commercial spacecraft launches, particularly with humans on board. It expires in September, and the question is, should they continue? Is it time to have the FAA begin a full formal regulatory oversight process of this activity or should they be extended again? Jack, I don't know if you have any preexisting strong opinions about this. But I think one event has happened in the world that really colors the dynamics of how this political discussion is going to happen here.

Jack Kiraly: Well, I am a single issue voter, and my single issue is the FAA's regulatory authority over human space flight activities.

Casey Dreier: Notably the largest constituency out there.

Jack Kiraly: Ultimately, I'm trying to remember when it's really been since, I think 2010 maybe, so it's been longer than a decade.

Casey Dreier: That's the Commercial Space Launch Amendments of 2004.

Jack Kiraly: 2004.

Casey Dreier: Yeah.

Jack Kiraly: Yeah, so that was a decade ago, right?

Casey Dreier: Yeah, that's roughly a decade.

Jack Kiraly: Feels like it.

Casey Dreier: Absolutely.

Jack Kiraly: So I mean, it's been almost 20 years. A lot has happened in those years, but not as much as I think was thought was going to happen since 2004.

Casey Dreier: It was right after SpaceShipOne basically, where this whole... And it is like, "Oh, we'll be doing commercial space tourism within a couple of years." And I think literally, we just had Virgin Galactic's first commercial operations last week, which thankfully was successful. But you're right, it hasn't happened as much. We've only had how many companies we're talking about? The SpaceX has started to launch commercial individuals and tourist flights. Blue Origin...

Jack Kiraly: With New Shepard and potentially New Glenn, Virgin Galactic.

Casey Dreier: And I think that's it.

Jack Kiraly: That's kind of it.

Casey Dreier: And as they point out, those are all very different systems, so it's not clear exactly what the consistent regulatory environment would be. But there's also, I think this, what's the tolerance right now for continued, let's say it's not unregulated, but it's a very light regulatory touch in terms of it's a very industry driven, in terms of safety. Given, I'd say the tragedy of the OceanGate Titan submersible, five people lost their lives. In retrospect, seems like a lot of being reported that a lot of corners were being cut or it wasn't quite as safe or as technologically advanced as maybe it was presenting itself. And as a consequence, people died on this adventure tourism that was pertained to be far safer than it was. In an environment that kind of feels like a spaceship, that you have a very harsh external environment, anything goes wrong, you're dead very quickly. And I'm not alone in this. A number of other commentators saw this as almost kind of a dry run for what happens if some tragedy, befalls commercial space flight, human tourism.

Jack Kiraly: Honestly, given everything that's happened so far, and maybe we've been saying this for 20 years on the cusp of human tourism in space, I think now might be the time to at least start the process of figuring out what that regulatory regime looks like. Just given that one, there is this now, I think political pressure, given the tragedy with the OceanGate Titan submersible, having that conversation now preempts a potential loss of life. And not to say that that lives have not been lost in the pursuit of commercial space tourism, fewer than under sea tourism at this point. But it is inherently a dangerous proposition and companies are accepting a huge risk in this current environment. It is a little bit high feel like maybe given that SpaceX kind of being the preeminent access to space for humans at this point. Because they rely so heavily on government contracts. They have kind of a built-in incentive to be extra cautious with humans in space.

Casey Dreier: Well, and they're going through kind of a co-design with NASA. I mean, NASA's approving at the end of the day those launch conditions and will accept that they're risk for their astronauts, but that's not the case for Virgin Galactic or Blue Origin at this point.

Jack Kiraly: But NASA's not a regulatory body, and those standards do not apply equally across the industry, and SpaceX is benefiting from developing this technology in conjunction with NASA to potentially spin off and use it for commercial space tourism. It seems a little similar to how we have a commercial airline industry. The Department of Defense sought to develop the KC-135, KC-130, and that spun off to become the Boeing 707. And there's that model, which I think was in part the basis for the commercial crew program. But yeah, now you have New Shepard, which is Blue Origin suborbital launch vehicle. You have Virgin Galactic now performing commercial flights. And I'm sure a number of other competitors that will emerge in the next few years, that maybe it's time to actually have this conversation about a regulatory regime for standards.

Casey Dreier: Yeah, I see no realistic political pathway to getting these extended after this disaster. I just don't see any way that Congress, I mean, they're set to expire, it would take an act of Congress to continue them. And with the current divided Congress we have already in action is going to be the default mode. But even given that, I don't see how enough members after what happened with the submersible and just how big of a news story that was, they say, "Okay, we don't need any kind of regulatory oversight of things like commercial space tourism." I just don't see how you get there, even if you disagree with that, just the politics around it, given the visibility. And I don't know if you agree with that, but I want to add one other thought to this, which is I wonder, this is interesting to me. I mean, part of the submersible issue is that I think people thought that the individuals were trapped over days, and that created a certain amount of tension and I would say somewhat of a ghoulish focus on it, that the people are trapped in there. They're slowly maybe suffocating and will they be found in time? It created this incredibly dramatic narrative. When in reality, and we found out later that they functionally died instantly when the whole thing collapsed. I wonder if story that had been known from the beginning, whether the story would've carried that amount of attention and impact, and this is kind of that different, I'm thinking about in space. Most of the disasters that'll probably happen for commercial tourists and space will be the instantaneous kind and not the slow leak. There's a number of disasters that can follow you in space, and I wonder if that the instantaneous aspect versus the slow created... It's more visceral and frightening and touches on these fundamental fears. I think if it's a slow process or it has the potential for rescue, it just drags it on. Something about our psyches react to that more, and I wonder if this would've been a different situation, if it had been known from the beginning what the actual failure was.

Jack Kiraly: Would it have been the headline news story for multiple days or would it have been on the Chiron at the bottom of the screen or on the [inaudible 00:50:29] at bottom of the screen? I think that plays a significant function here, and you're absolutely right. I think because it was perceived as this slow grueling death as opposed to what in reality happened and almost instantaneous disaster, but that brought a lot more media attention to it. And now as we're talking about here, and maybe hopefully these conversations are playing out elsewhere, maybe 15 miles down the road from where I am. That in reality, we should be talking about this, and this isn't to say that the moment that the moratorium for the FAA regulations expires on, I think September 1st and then September 2nd, there's going to be this whole slew of regulations that are coming too. Like they're sitting there waiting in the wings, like some government bureaucrats with a binder full of regulations. That's not what happens. It's going to open up this process whereby there's going to be input from the community, there's going to be input from members of Congress, from industry, from potential and current stakeholders, from potential clients of commercial space flight companies, that I think it probably would be a really good thing to initiate this process. And I mean, even maybe even more basic than that. There really isn't a vehicle to extend the moratorium beyond September 1st in the pipeline, in Congress. And given the political will that doesn't exist, I don't see a bill coming out of nowhere that extends this moratorium. This is not going to come up and really has not come up much in conversation, in public testimony on commercial space flight. The very little that there's been, there probably is just going to be this kind of silent end to the moratorium and the FAA will start their process to develop these regulations probably in good time. And I think everybody will benefit from the FAA initiating this process in the wake of the OceanGate Titan disaster.

Casey Dreier: In the long run, I mean, again, I think as you pointed out, it's a multi-year process, lots of input from industry, and it's not like the FAA, and I think we saw with SpaceX, super heavy launch, the FAA isn't itself perfect. It doesn't guarantee at the end of the day either perfect safety or there's fallibility here. But I think to your point, in a sense, the long-term at this point, maybe we shouldn't be running away from regulations. Why should we treat this separate if this is actually a healthy, functional part of our economy? It has to start acting like it. And in the long run, the industry has probably served better by having a healthy and fair regulatory system that ensures the ongoing safety, and you don't have rogue actors undermining confidence and not saying any of the current companies are. But in the future, if you don't want rogue actors kind of undermining or cutting corners on safety, that could undermine the whole effort. But it's easier said than done. But Jack, I think we are out of time for this month, so on that happy note on potential regulatory structure, good question. By the way, that was a fun discussion.

Jack Kiraly: Yeah, great. Got me thinking about government regulation in a different way.

Casey Dreier: Yeah, there you go. Jack, anything you want to plug coming up? I can think of one big thing that's happening in September that our members are going to visit in.

Jack Kiraly: Yeah, I think September. I think there's like something going on some 17th or 18th, I don't know, some conference... Oh wait, it's the Day of Action for The Planetary Society. Our Annual Day of Action is returning in person to Washington DC, September 17th. The Sunday will be our training day, September 18th, the day chock-full of meetings with members of Congress and their staff to talk about why NASA needs to get as close as possible to that PBR 27 point something billion dollars for NASA and why it's so important that Congress make that investment today. Perfect timing.

Casey Dreier: For all the reasons we just outlined, yes, absolutely. It's an opportunity for you to meet your representatives and their staff in person to really make that difference. It's really fun, I'd say. By the way too, testimonials are so positive. People feel great, great opportunity also to meet other members of The Planetary Society. We arrange all of your meetings for you. We give you training, we give you talking points, we give you experience, and then you bring your travel, you bring your accommodations to join us in DC if you can, and it's a great time. I really recommend it. You can find out all sorts of information about this at Hope you join us this year, but if not, we'll be doing this. It's a yearly activity, and then we're happy to be back in person, so good point, Jack. So Jack, until Day of Action or until next month perhaps, I will see you sooner, but I know about our listeners. We will bring you back soon, but thank you for joining us this month and giving everyone an update on all the variety of interesting things that are pending and makes our lives very interesting here in the space policy world.

Jack Kiraly: Everybody keeps it interesting. You're absolutely right. Well, it's my pleasure, Casey. Thank you for having me on. Always great to talk politics and policy with you both here, terrestrially and in the cosmos.

Casey Dreier: Great way to to put that. Thank you again for listening. If you enjoy this show, please share it with friends. Consider becoming a member of The Planetary Society. Rate the show, help us get the word out about it. We really enjoy hearing from you as well, so drop us a line. You can find us on the member community, at The Planetary Society, or on Twitter or on the usual spaces at Until next time, Jack, ad astra.

Jack Kiraly: Ad astra.