April 14, 2024

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NASA's final 2024 spending bill postpones a decision on MSR funding

NASA's final 2024 spending bill postpones a decision on MSR funding

WASHINGTON — Congressional appropriators have released a final spending bill for fiscal year 2024 that cuts NASA funding from what the agency received in 2023 while delaying a spending decision on Mars Sample Return (MSR).

House and Senate appropriators on March 3 released bill text and report language for six of 12 FY 2024 appropriations bills, including the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) spending bill that funds NASA. Congress is expected to approve the bills before the continuing resolution to fund agencies covered by the bill expires on March 8.

The bill provides $24.875 billion for NASA, 2% less than the agency received in 2023 and 8.5% less than the $27.185 billion NASA requested for 2024. The final figure is also below the levels in the separate House and Senate bills of $25.367 billion and $25 billion, respectively.

Regarding the MSR, where the House and Senate provided vastly different numbers, the final bill gives NASA flexibility. Uncertainty over program spending prompted NASA to cut spending on MSR in November while it was under an ongoing resolution, and the extended uncertainty led the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the main hub for MSR, to lay off 8% of its staff in February.

In the report accompanying the bill, specialists noted that NASA is re-evaluating the MSR architecture through a group called the MSR Independent Review Board Response Team, or MIRT. “The agreement requires NASA to submit a report no later than 60 days after completion of the MIRT report on the recommended path forward for MSR, within a balanced science portfolio,” including an annual funding profile for MSR, the report said.

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The report directs NASA to spend at least $300 million, the amount in the Senate bill, on MSR, and up to $949.3 million, the amount in the House bill. It also directs NASA not to lay off any more people in the MSR program until the agency provides Congress with a report on the future of MSR.

The report also includes $227 million for the On-Orbit Service, Assembly and Manufacturing (OSAM) 1 mission, an experimental satellite servicing technology mission that NASA announced on March 1 that it plans to cancel. It is not clear whether the appropriators were aware of NASA's intention to cancel OSAM-1 when it drafted the report, but it recommends an ongoing review in September 2024 if NASA is unable to keep the mission within cost and budget by removing “non-core capabilities.”

the final report In many cases the language was adopted from The report is from the Senate bill Approved by allocators in July. This included NASA's request for $228.4 million for its Commercial Low Earth Orbit Destinations Program to support the development of commercial successors to the International Space Station. This report also expressed support for the development of an extraorbital vehicle from the International Space Station, but did not specify the funding needed for it. NASA requested $180 million For the deorbit vehicle upon request.

The report directs NASA to fund the Space Launch System and Orion programs at their 2023 levels of $2.6 billion and $1.339 billion, respectively, slightly more than NASA requested for 2024. The report also includes full funding of $1.88 billion for the Human Landing System (HLS). ) “to fulfill all contractual obligations of both HLS providers in fiscal year 2024.”

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In science, the bill provides NASA's heliophysics division with $805 million, the amount it received in 2023, and about $55 million more than the request. It also directs NASA to submit a plan to launch a major heliophysics mission, the Aerospace Dynamics Constellation, by the end of the decade after NASA planned to postpone the mission. Likewise, the report asks NASA to obtain sufficient funding for the Veritas Venus mission, which was delayed until the early 2030s due to budget pressures and limited resources at JPL, to enable launch by the end of the decade.

The final bill provides significant funding for nuclear propulsion work in the agency's Space Technology Directorate, with $110 million for nuclear thermal propulsion (NTP) and $50 million for nuclear electric propulsion. NTP funding includes $10 million to accelerate development of the operational NTP system with commercial partners concurrent with the DRACO project on which NASA is collaborating with DARPA.