NASA Budget Request Revives Science, Maintains Focus on Lunar Landing

NASA Budget Request Revives Science, Maintains Focus on Lunar Landing

NASA’s first budget request under the Biden administration seeks funding increases toward science, STEM education, and the environment while maintaining its commitment to a lunar landing in just three years.

The 2022 presidential budget request, released this past Friday, May 28, is asking Congress for $US24.8 ($32) billion. That’s a more than 6% increase from last year, in which NASA received $US23.3 ($30) billion. Of this total, $US7.93 ($10) billion would go towards scientific research, which represents the largest budget request for NASA science to date. Congress will now ruminate on the request and allocate funds as it sees fit.

NASA is referring to 2022 as the “year of innovation,” as the space agency hones in on science, aeronautics, space operations, space technology, and of course, the Artemis Moon program. Indeed, and as the budget request makes clear, NASA continues to operate under the assumption that it will land astronauts on the Moon in 2024, even if it remains an unrealistic target.

“I know the goal is 2024,” explained NASA Administrator Bill Nelson during a virtual press conference held this past Friday. “But I think we have to be brutally realistic, that history would tell us — because space development is so hard — that there could be delays to that schedule for the first demonstration flight of landing humans and returning them safely to Earth.”

Approval of the budget request would keep the United States on a “path for a regular cadence of Artemis missions to the moon,” said Nelson. Under Artemis, “America will land the first woman and the first person of colour on the Moon,” adding that this “commitment is not just a statement, it is an action.” The current plan is to launch the Space Launch System (SLS) later this year, followed by a crewed trip around the Moon (probably in 2023), and a crewed lunar landing in 2024.

To stay on schedule, NASA says it needs $US6.9 ($9) billion for the Artemis program, of which nearly $US4.5 ($6) billion would go towards SLS, the Orion crew capsule, and the requisite ground systems. An additional $US2.39 ($3) billion would go towards the development of a lunar lander, or Human Landing System (HLS), and a planned lunar space station known as Gateway.

Upwards of $US1.2 ($2) billion would go towards the development of a lunar lander, a hefty portion of which will (probably) go to SpaceX. The Elon Musk-led company has been asked to perform a demonstration mission in which its Starship system — still in development — would land on the Moon. But some of this total would go towards the development of a second lunar lander. As Nelson explained, it “has been in no uncertain terms expressed to me by members of both the House and the Senate that they want a competition for the remaining lander contracts that will occur over the course of the decade following the first demonstration flight.” Likely candidates for these contracts include Blue Origin and Dynetics, both of which are currently contesting NASA’s decision to solely go with SpaceX for the HLS demo mission.

NASA’s budget request is also asking for $US4 ($5) billion to support ongoing space operations, including funds to support the International Space Station, the commercial crew program, and the required cargo missions.

All this said, the largest chunk of the 2022 budgetary pie would go towards science. The request for $US7.93 ($10) billion is roughly 9% more than the request made last year, and it’s the “largest budget request for NASA science ever,” said Nelson, who added that the “Biden administration is proving that science is back.” This large sum “will help NASA address the climate crisis and advance robotic missions to pave the way for humans to explore the Moon and Mars,” Nelson stated.

In terms of specifics, $US2.25 ($3) billion would support the construction of an Earth System Observatory. This fleet of satellites would “create a 3D, holistic view of Earth, from bedrock to atmosphere,” and allow scientists to track and study the effects of climate change, according to NASA. Another $US3.2 ($4) billion would go towards planetary exploration, of which $US653 ($838) million would be allocated towards the Mars sample return mission. Tentatively slated for 2026, this mission would involve the collection and return of sample caches left behind by the Perseverance rover. NASA also wants $US800 ($1,026) million to study the Sun and $US147 ($189) million for STEM engagement.

“The president’s budget request is recognition that NASA’s missions contribute to the administration’s larger goals for America: climate change, promoting equity, driving economic growth, STEM research and development, all of which equal jobs,” said Nelson.

U.S. Congress now has much to consider, especially as it pertains to Artemis. Personally, I’m hoping for an approval of NASA’s science request, which could go a long way in undoing much of the damage done during the previous administration.