WASHINGTON — House leaders will fully fund NASA’s Mars sample return program despite its ongoing problems but will halt the agency’s plans to cooperate with a European mission to Mars.
The kidnappers were released in the House of Representatives this week the report The companion to the FY 2024 Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) spending bill. That bill, which includes $25.366 billion for NASA, has been in limbo for more than three months, after an appropriations subcommittee drafted the bill in mid-July. The full Appropriations Committee did not take up the bill at that time or release the associated report, which provides more detail on spending levels and policy direction.
The delay in publishing the report comes as the full House of Representatives prepares to consider the bill without Appropriations Committee approval, likely in mid-November. The House Rules Committee is requesting amendments to the bill now for consideration sometime during the week of November 13.
The biggest difference between the House and Senate bills concerns the Mars Sample Return (MSR). The Senate bill provided just $300 million for the program, less than a third of NASA’s $949.3 million request, and directed NASA to provide a funding file for the MSR program that would not cost more than $5.3 billion or provide “options to descope or recast MSR or face mission cancellation.” “
However, the House report would fully fund the MSR at $949.3 million, and asks NASA to request the necessary funding in 2025 to ensure the launch of the MSR sample retrieval lander and return orbiter missions to Earth by 2030.
However, the report notes “pending independent review board findings.” That board completed its work in September, concluding that there was “close to zero probability” that MSR could remain on cost and schedule. It also concluded that the total MSR program would cost between $8 billion and $11 billion, well above the $5.3 billion threshold mentioned in the Senate report.
Funding for the MSR project in the House bill has ripple effects on other NASA programs. The House bill provides $7.38 billion for NASA science programs, slightly more than the $7.341 billion in the Senate bill. However, the House bill reduces funding for Earth sciences, astrophysics, heliophysics, and biological and physical sciences compared to the Senate bill, which in most cases was already cut from the agency’s request.
The House report offers little guidance on Earth science, astrophysics, or heliophysics programs. However, the proposed cut was one reason why Mark Clampin, director of NASA’s Astrophysics Division, said on October 13 that he was considering reducing the operating budgets for the Chandra X-ray Observatory and the Hubble Space Telescope.
Curiously, while the House bill fully funds the MSR program, it would prevent much less spending on another Mars program. “The recommendation does not support requested funding for the Rosalind Franklin ExoMars rover,” the report said, referring to NASA’s proposed support for the ESA mission that ESA sought after ending cooperation with Russia last year.
This support is still being negotiated, but will likely include thrusters for a new landing pad for the vehicle, radioisotope heaters, and a launch process. NASA’s 2024 budget proposal did not specify specific funding for this collaboration, instead listing it as part of the “Future Mars Missions” program line that also includes planning for a receiving facility for samples brought back from the MSR line of missions. NASA requested $49.9 million for future Mars missions in its budget proposal.
For this reception facility, the House report offered specific language, directing NASA to “prioritize proximity to the current custodian of all extraterrestrial samples held by NASA” by placing the new facility within 30 miles (50 kilometers) of that existing facility, Which is located at the Johnson Space Center. NASA has not yet identified a potential location for such a reception facility, but noted in the budget proposal that it should have a biosafety Level 4 classification and could be part of an existing government facility.
The House bill also reduces funding for space technology and space operations, but by smaller amounts than the Senate bill. The report’s section on space operations does not mention funding levels for the Commercial Low Earth Orbit Development Program, or CLD, which the Senate bill fully funds. However, it provides the $180 million requested by NASA to purchase an extraorbital vehicle for the International Space Station.
The House bill fully funds NASA’s Exploration Account, which includes the Space Launch System, Orion, ground systems, and other capabilities such as the human landing system and space suits.
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