NASA grapples with budget cuts as it undertakes ambitious programs

AI SaaS

An older man in a suit smiles.
Enlarge / NASA Administrator Bill Nelson is putting a positive spin on NASA’s budget.

It’s budget-palooza, NASA nerds. For the first time in more than a decade, the US space agency is grappling with budget cuts. Be forewarned, there will be a lot of numbers in this story, but we’ll do our best to make sense of them.

First of all, the space agency only just received its budget for the current fiscal year (October 1, 2023, to September 30, 2024) last Friday. If it seems weird that a federal agency should find out how much money it has to spend nearly halfway through that budget year, well, it is. But this is the world we live in, with a fractious Congress unable to agree on much of anything, including budgets.

In any case, NASA’s budget for fiscal year 2024 came to $24.9 billion. This represents an approximately 2 percent cut in the space agency’s funding relative to the final budget for fiscal year 2023. It’s worth noting that the last time NASA’s budget decreased from year to year came more than a decade ago, from fiscal year 2012 to 2013. This was due, in large part, to the end of the Space Shuttle program.

This budget cut does not reflect Congressional displeasure with NASA’s performance. Rather, to avert a debt limit crisis in June 2023, the US Congress and President Biden agreed to budget caps for fiscal years 2024 and 2025.

“We’re not going to get out of this hole until you finish both fiscal years, 24 and 25,” NASA administrator Bill Nelson said Monday during a teleconference with reporters. “NASA makes do with whatever we’re given. This is an agency where the impossible becomes possible.”

FY 2025 request

On Monday, mere hours after finally learning its final budget for the current year, NASA released its budget request for the coming fiscal year, 2025. All of the federal agencies did so on Monday in conjunction with the rollout of the president’s budget request for FY 2025.

Such budget requests are part of the political theater of Washington, DC. The White House has the power to appoint the leaders of federal agencies, such as NASA. However, Congress authorizes funding, so the final budget will be subject to negotiations among the House, Senate, and the White House.

The blueprint clearly outlines the White House’s priorities regarding NASA’s direction. The space agency’s budget request can be found here. The Planetary Society has published a useful comparison here that delineates the NASA budget for 2023, the president’s budget request for 2024, and the final budget enacted last week.

NASA is asking for $25.4 billion for the coming fiscal year. This is more than the agency will receive in fiscal year 2024 but significantly less than the $27.2 billion NASA asked for in last year’s budget request. Put another way, NASA has recognized the real-world constraints and is asking for 7 percent less funding this year than it did in 2023.

“Naturally, we have to make hard choices,” Nelson said.

About those hard choices

There are no significant changes in NASA’s proposed budget for the Artemis Program, which seeks to return humans to the Moon later this decade. There remains broad support in Congress for this program, at least for the initial lunar landings. Funding for the Artemis landings, which have a mix of cost-plus and fixed-price contracts, should more or less continue.

The harder choices will have to be made in the science portion of NASA’s budget, which covers planetary missions as well as deep space observatories. In particular, NASA requested $2.7 billion for planetary science missions in fiscal year 2025, virtually the same amount received this fiscal year.

But there’s a catch: This funding level includes no allocation for the Mars Sample Return mission, a multi-year, multi-billion program to return rock samples from Mars to Earth for scientific study. This mission is a high priority for NASA and the scientific community, but the overall plans were recently declared to be “unrealistic” by an independent review board.

A NASA committee is studying alternative mission designs to bring Mars samples back to Earth with better cost and schedule estimates. It will release its findings later this month. After that time, NASA may reformulate plans and allocate funding for the Mars Sample Return. The catch is that it would not seek new funding but rather pull money from other planetary science missions.

“We don’t expect that the planetary top line will go up,” said Nicky Fox, chief of science for NASA, during the press call.

AI SaaS

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