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Bill Nelson Says He's Discovered A New Pile Of Money For NASA

By Keith Cowing
May 21, 2021
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Bill Nelson Says He's Discovered A New Pile Of Money For NASA

Keith’s 21 May update: Earlier this week Bill Nelson suggested that NASA could solve all of its financial woes by getting $10-11 billion out of the new Infrastructure bill. Well, tick tock. Republicans balked at the overall bill so President Biden came back with a smaller counter offer. There will likely be more. It looks like there is a lot less money in the cookie jar – and R&D is no longer going to be a priority. As I mentioned below, Nelson’s faith-based budget plan really does not have a Plan B in case the infrastructure windfall he hopes for does not happen. Well … half a trillion dollars just disappeared from the infrastructure bill that we were all looking at when Nelson testified.
Here’s what’s in Biden’s counteroffer on infrastructure, CNN
“The new plan would reduce the size of Biden’s initial proposal, known as the American Jobs Plan, from $2.25 trillion to $1.7 trillion and make four key concessions, according to the counteroffer document obtained by CNN. … Research and development: $180 billion: This is another investment Biden is prepared to take off the table. His original plan called on Congress to invest $180 billion to advance US leadership in critical technologies, upgrade the US’s research infrastructure and establish the US as a leader in climate science, innovation and research and development.”
Statement of: The Honorable Bill Nelson Administrator, Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies, Committee on Appropriations
“President Biden’s FY 2022 discretionary funding request, transmitted in April, is $24.7 billion for NASA, an increase of more than six percent over the FY 2021 enacted level. This funding supports the programs summarized here and supports significant NASA contributions to Administration priorities.”
Keith’s 20 May note: In yesterday’s FY 2022 budget hearing Bill Nelson touched on a lot of things but two stood out: the HLS (Human Landing System) contract and getting more money for NASA. His prepared testimony matches with what he said during questioning. But one thing that is wholly absent from this prepared statement is where he expects to try and get billions in new funds – billions and billions of dollars’ worth.
Nelson decided that the way for NASA to get out of the fiscal mess it is in is to do a Hail Mary pass and dive into the new TBD Jobs Bill that the Administration is formulating and grab some dollars. He said “You can put $5.4 Billion into the jobs bill for the HLS that would be at the end of the day producing jobs. Another $200 million could go into that bill for spacesuits.” He went on to say “We can also put $585 million on nuclear thermal propulsion.”
Nelson then turned to another pot of forthcoming money – the multi-trillion dollar Infrastructure bill and said “Part of the jobs bill is infrastructure – there’s another $5.4 Billion. Look at NASA facilities in your state (congressman) – there is aging infrastructure.” Do the math. All told, it looks like he wants to raid the cookie jar for something like $10 – 11 billion. One would assume that OMB is on board with this plan.

Oddly, if you check Nelson’s prepared statement the word “infrastructure” doesn’t appear – nor does the proposed “Jobs Bill”. It is usually standard practice for hearing witnesses to provide their prepared statements 24 hours (sometimes 48) in advance so that the staff can get their members ready. Nelson was both a Congressman and a Senator so he knows the drill. To not mention this get rich quick scheme to grab billions from a yet to be released massive spending bill is rather odd. It certainly caught some people by surprise – and Congress doesn’t like those surprises. One has to assume that some of the members knew that this was coming in advance and that this was some sort of strategic thing on Nelson’s part. Or maybe he just decided to go there on his own. Either way, it is rather strange for such a blatantly huge budget scheme to be dropped out of the sky like this.
It is nice that Bill Nelson thinks that the jobs and infrastructure legislation is a monetary cure all for all of NASA’s ills. But what happens when the Congress as a whole votes differently. The House may go along, but the Senate has different ideas on things like this. This faith-based budgetary approach by Nelson apparently has no back up plan.
And when the issue of budget shortfalls comes up you don’t hear a peep from Nelson in writing or in the hearing about the cause of these shortfalls and delays. Indeed, NASA programs run by Big Aerospace contractors who employ a lot of people in certain states are the prime cause. James Webb Space Telescope and the SLS/Orion program are the worst offenders.
According to a report issued by the GAO today NASA’s cost and management controls are still broken and that these two programs (SLS and JWST) alone cause $7.1 billion of the $9.6 billion in overall agency cost growth. But when you listen to Nelson – or read his prepared statement – none of that cost overrun program delay bad news manages to surface.
But if you listen to Bill Nelson he is all sympatico with the White House and this new source of money he is talking about is mostly a done deal. Yet, if you listen to how he couches the impact of these large programs run by large aerospace contractors, in the end, the word “jobs” is in each and every justification. Nelson seeks to get lots of new money to support jobs. That’s fine – we all need a job. But what we do not hear much about is the real focus that NASA should have – one that synchronizes with meeting the guidance contained in its charter. NASA does not exist to give people jobs. It exists to explore the universe.
Simply adding more money into a government space agency with all of its unattended and unresolved inefficiencies is like pumping air into a tire with a big hole in it. The hole just gets bigger and you have to keep pumping harder. Meanwhile, you can’t use the tire and increasingly less actual exploration gets done.

NASA Watch founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.