NASA’s long-term missions could be hurt by budget caps, lawmakers warn

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, shown here at an agency event in October 2023.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, shown here at an agency event in October 2023. Melissa Phillip/Houston Chronicle via Getty Images

House Science Chairman Frank Lucas R-Okla., said Congress needs to provide NASA with “sufficient support” to carry out its work.

Lawmakers are concerned that last year’s debt ceiling agreement will harm NASA’s long-term plans to return to the Moon and send astronauts to Mars.

During a House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing on Tuesday to discuss NASA’s fiscal year 2025 budget request, Rep. Frank Lucas, R-Okla. — the panel’s chairman — said Congress needs to provide the agency with “sufficient support” to achieve its missions.

“Failing to do so will force NASA to take on more work than they have funding to accomplish, which will only set NASA up for failure by asking them to do too much with too little,” Lucas added.

The Fiscal Responsibility Act, which President Joe Biden signed last in May 2023, included caps on federal discretionary funding for FY24 and FY25. NASA’s budget request for the next fiscal year is over $25 billion — the same amount it received in FY23. 

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson told lawmakers that spending limits, in part, are going to “have an effect on some of the contracts at all NASA centers.” He added that maintenance on aging structures is also an issue the agency has had to defer to help comply with budget limits.

“What I'm hoping is when you all get through with the cycle of ‘24 and ‘25, and come ‘26 — with all of the fiscal other things that you have to consider — that there might be some more appropriations for NASA to address its facilities’ needs,” Nelson said. 

Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif. — the panel’s ranking member — said the FY25 request “enables progress” on many of the agency’s most immediate priorities but warned that NASA is confronting challenges in simultaneously juggling future projects on a constrained budget. 

NASA is already pursuing several ambitious initiatives, including its Artemis mission to return humans to the Moon as part of a long-term plan to send astronauts to Mars. 

Lofgren pointed out that NASA’s plans call for “transitioning from use of the International Space Station to commercial low-Earth platforms at the end of the decade at the same time NASA also plans to begin an annual cadence of Artemis missions to the Moon.”

“I recognize that tough decisions need to be made,” Lofgren said, adding that “It is also imperative that NASA has clear plans ready for action on the other side of the present budget horizon.”

Nelson noted that some of NASA’s projects are already having to contend with cost and schedule overruns, such as the agency’s Mars sample return mission. He said he “pulled the cord” on the effort to collect samples from the planet’s surface after independent reviews suggested it would cost up to $11 billion and might not be achievable until 2040. 

To keep the Artemis mission and plans to replace the aging International Space Station with a commercial solution on track, Nelson said he hopes Congress will “hopefully be a little more generous in making sure that there's not that gap” when it comes to future funding for NASA.