House budget reconciliation package funds NASA infrastructure but not lunar lander work

WASHINGTON — The House Science Committee will mark up its portion of a multitrillion-dollar spending bill this week that includes several billion dollars for NASA infrastructure but nothing for lunar lander development.

The House Science Committee is scheduled to meet Sept. 9 to mark up a portion of a $3.5 trillion spending bill being considered under a process known as budget reconciliation. That procedure allows the bill to pass the Senate with a simple majority without the threat of a filibuster.

The committee will allocate $45.51 billion in spending for agencies under its jurisdiction, such as NASA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation. That will be combined with portions of the bill assigned to other committees into the final version to be considered by the full House.

An updated draft of the bill, dated Sept. 4, offers good and bad news for NASA. It includes $4 billion for “repair, recapitalization, and modernization of physical infrastructure and facilities” across the agency. The bill does not assign amounts to specific projects or centers.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson had made funding for agency infrastructure a priority in any budget reconciliation package, seeking more than $5 billion earlier this year. “There’s aging infrastructure that is dilapidated,” he told House appropriators in May. “They’ve got holes in the roof where they’re putting together the core of the SLS” at the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans. Michoud suffered additional damage from Hurricane Ida last month.

However, the draft bill includes nothing for the other priority identified by Nelson, the agency’s Human Landing System (HLS) program. Nelson said in May he wanted $5.4 billion for HLS to allow NASA to select a second company alongside SpaceX to develop and demonstrate a lander capable of transporting astronauts to and from the lunar surface.

The bill, though, is silent on HLS. It does provide NASA with an additional $388 million for climate change research and development, of which $225 million would go to the agency’s aeronautics directorate for sustainable aviation. The remainder would be used for research and modeling, data management and support for wildfire monitoring and emergency response. An additional $7 million would go to NASA cybersecurity.

In an Aug. 19 interview, Nelson said that the budget reconciliation package is one of two avenues NASA is pursuing to obtain the additional funding needed for a second HLS award. The other is the traditional annual appropriations process, although a House appropriations bill passed in July increased spending on HLS by only $150 million above the agency’s request of $1.195 billion.

The Senate has yet to act on either a fiscal year 2022 spending bill or various aspects of the budget reconciliation package. In a speech at the 36th Space Symposium Aug. 24, Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), who is both the ranking member of the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA as well as a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, said he expected appropriators to mark up a fiscal year 2022 spending bill in late September.

He added in an interview after the speech that the Senate Commerce Committee hasn’t yet determined how it will draft its portions of the budget reconciliation package. “We’re in new territory,” he said, noting that both he and the ranking member of the full committee, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), asked committee chair Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.) to use “a committee process” to provide input on the bill.

The draft bill to be considered by the House Science Committee also includes funding for a NOAA space weather project. It offers $173 million to accelerate development of the Space Weather Follow-On L-1 mission, including “prioritizing an independent launch” of the spacecraft. The spacecraft, designed to monitor space weather conditions from the Earth-sun L-1 Lagrange point 1.5 million kilometers from the Earth, is currently scheduled to launch in 2025 as part of a NASA rideshare mission that includes several NASA space science and planetary science spacecraft.

The bill provides more than $3.4 billion for NSF infrastructure projects, such as major research equipment and construction projects. The bill does not identify any specific projects, which could include a replacement for the Arecibo Observatory radio telescope that collapsed last December or financial support for large ground-based astronomical observatories like the Giant Magellan Telescope or Thirty Meter Telescope. The NSF would get an additional $7.55 billion for research awards, scholarships and fellowships.

The overall fate of the budget reconciliation package remains uncertain. Because no Republican members of the Senate are likely to vote for the bill, all 50 Democrats must vote for it, with Vice President Kamala Harris casting a tiebreaking vote, for it to pass.

However, in a Sept. 2 op-ed in The Wall Street Journal, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.) said he would not support a $3.5 trillion bill, citing his concerns about its effects on inflation and the national debt. He called for a “strategic pause” in the development of the bill and reducing its size to “only what America can afford and needs to spend.”

Nelson, in last month’s interview, acknowledged the challenge of getting the budget reconciliation package through a divided Senate. “What’s my guess on a reconciliation bill that you have to have all 50 Democrats voting for in the Senate in order to get it passed?” he asked. “Your guess is as good as mine.”

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