Biden Budget Retains Goal of Putting Astronauts Back on Moon by 2024

Biden Budget Retains Goal of Putting Astronauts Back on Moon by 2024

President Biden’s $24.8 billion FY2022 budget request for NASA retains the goal set by President Trump to put astronauts back on the Moon by 2024. Today, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson acknowledged the challenges in meeting such an ambitious schedule for the Artemis program, but insisted that remains the goal. Nelson also revealed plans to participate, albeit virtually, in an international conference in Russia next month to discuss continued U.S.-Russian space cooperation in the International Space Station (ISS).

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Speaking to reporters, Nelson called the President’s request “a very aggressive, forward-leaning budget” that reflects how investing in NASA is an investment in the country’s future.

“The President’s budget request is a 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.”

Biden released top-line numbers for NASA and other agencies in April, but the details were finally submitted to Congress today. Presidents in their first year in office are not expected to send in their budget requests by the statutory deadline of the first Monday in February, but this is quite late.

The House Appropriations Committee has been moving forward with hearings without the details. The hearing on NASA’s budget was last week. Nelson outlined a plan to augment whatever is appropriated for FY2022 with money added to Biden’s jobs/infrastructure bill, as much as $11.585 billion. That is separate from this budget request.

A budget request is just that. A request. Under the Constitution, Congress controls the nation’s purse strings. In recent years, Congress appropriated more than either President Obama or President Trump requested, but that ended last year when Trump asked for a 12 percent increase to pay for Artemis while proposing cuts to a number of programs well known to be congressional priorities. Congress restored the money for those programs, approved just 25 percent of the request for Artemis Human Landing Systems (HLS), and kept the agency at almost level funding with the prior year: $23.3 billion.

Today’s request of $24.8 billion is a 6.6 percent increase. It funds all but one of those congressional priorities, the SOFIA airborne infrared telescope. Acting NASA Chief Financial Officer Steve Shinn told reporters that SOFIA is the second most expensive operating astrophysics mission at NASA and has completed its primary mission.  NASA wants to move on to higher priority science.  SOFIA is a joint project with DLR, the German space agency.

The total request for science is up substantially, however. Nelson said it is the highest amount for science in the agency’s history: $7.9 billion. The budgets for every science discipline — earth science, planetary science, astrophysics, heliophysics, and biological and physical sciences — go up not only for FY2022, but later years.

Although Biden often speaks about the importance of earth science/climate change research and NASA’s budget would increase by $250 million for that, it is planetary science that gets the biggest bump up. The request for FY2022 is $3.2 billion, half a billion more than the $2.7 billion allocated for FY2021.

The request for space technology also increases substantially, from $1.1 billion in FY2021 to $1.4 billion in FY2022.  Shinn stressed it is for “space technology,” not “exploration technology” as in budgets submitted by the Trump Administration. The Space Technology Mission Directorate was created to mature technologies for all of NASA’s mission areas, but the Trump Administration tried to narrow it to focus on the exploration technologies needed to send humans to the Moon and Mars. Now NASA is shifting back to the broader portfolio.

Source: NASA

The biggest surprise is the decision to keep the 2024 date for Artemis, a deadline widely panned since it was announced by then-Vice President Pence in March 2019 as technically and budgetarily infeasible. Reports from NASA’s Inspector General and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) regularly warn it is highly unlikely.

The date originally was set by the Trump Administration because 2024 would have been the end of a second Trump term if he was reelected giving it a political overtone, as well.

For all those reasons, including the significant shortfall in HLS funding in FY2021, a slip was highly anticipated to something closer to NASA’s original target date of 2028.

Today Nelson agreed it is a tall order.

“Space is hard. … We have seen, historically, delays. Will they occur?  I can’t answer that question. I know the goal is 2024. But I think we have to be brutally realistic that history will tell us, because space development is so hard, that there could be delays to that schedule for the first demonstration flight of landing humans [on the Moon] and returning them safely to Earth.”

The HLS budget request of $1.2 billion assumes funding only one HLS contractor. NASA initially insisted it wanted two to ensure competition and redundancy, but when it made its decision in April, concluded it could afford only one.  The two losing bidders are protesting the award.

The 2021 NASA Authorization Act now pending in the Senate as part of the U.S. Competition and Innovation Act (S. 1260) would require NASA to choose a second and authorizes $10 billion over five years for it. Nelson said if that language becomes law, funding would have to be on top of what is in today’s request. The total request for Artemis is $6.9 billion.

That is an authorization bill that recommends funding, but does not actually provide any money. Only appropriations bills provide money. Today’s budget submittal is just one step in that process.

A reporter from Russia’s TASS news agency asked Nelson if he will accept the invitation from Roscosmos Director General Dmitry Rogozin to visit Russia to discuss future cooperation on the International Space Station (ISS). Nelson reiterated what he has said in other venues that Russia is a critical partner in ISS and he hopes the two countries will continue to work together.

Some Russian officials have been saying Russia will withdraw from the ISS in 2025 when the current agreement expires and build their own space station. Russia built and operated seven successful space stations from 1971-2001, but joined the ISS program in 1993. The ISS is composed of a Russian Orbital Segment and a U.S. Orbital Segment (that includes modules from Europe and Japan and a robotic arm from Canada) and the two countries have jointly operated it for more than two decades.

The international Global Space Exploration Conference (GLEX) will be held in St. Petersburg, Russia next month where Rogozin and counterparts from other space agencies will discuss future space cooperation. Nelson said he will participate virtually and looks forward to discussing a continuation of the “extraordinary relationship” the United States and Russia share in the space arena. “In times when things might be a little more difficult on the face of the Earth, we seem to get getting along pretty good in space.”

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