NASA Asking for Another Steep Increase in FY2023

NASA Asking for Another Steep Increase in FY2023

Apparently undeterred by congressional unwillingness to increase its budget by 6.6 percent last year, NASA is asking for $26 billion for FY2023, an 8 percent increase over its FY2022 appropriations. Every budget account would get an increase, though that does not mean all programs are safe. Two science programs would be terminated and others in science, aeronautics and technology would be postponed.

NASA’s FY2023 budget request is $25.974 billion versus the FY2022 appropriation of $24.041 billion. NASA had requested $24.802 billion in large part to pay for the Artemis program to return astronauts to the lunar surface, but Congress wasn’t willing to allocate that much. While supportive of Artemis and NASA’s many other science, aeronautics and technology programs, there is a limit as to how much Congress is willing to invest.

NASA is requesting not just another boost in FY2023, but in the “out years” thereafter, rising to $28 billion in FY2027, though much of that purchasing power likely will be lost to inflation.

Source: NASA FY2023 budget request documentation.

As it has for the past several years, NASA displays its budget request differently from how Congress appropriates the money. Congress puts Science, Aeronautics, and Space Technology ahead of the human exploration accounts, Exploration and Space Operations, and does not break down Exploration the same way as NASA. That makes comparing the request and appropriations a challenge.

For FY2023, NASA is going a step further. Last year it separated the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate into two, the Space Operations Mission Directorate and Exploration Systems Development Mission Directorate. Now it is asking congressional permission to move money between the accounts depending on whether NASA considers an activity to be operations or development. NASA also is reconfiguring the subaccounts. All of that makes year-to-year comparisons murky.

In essence, the agency wants more money for everything it is doing. Two focuses are the Artemis program to get astronauts back to the Moon and on to Mars, and investments in climate change research through the earth science program.

The FY2023 budget request would increase funding for NASA’s science program overall to $7.988 million. NASA cheered that as a record, but it is only slightly more than the $7.931 billion requested for FY2022. Congress appropriated $7.614 million instead, a $317 million cut.

As for earth science, the FY2022 request was $2.3 billion and Congress appropriated $2.1 billion. This year’s request is $2.4 billion and continues support for an Earth System Observatory, a series of five satellites. The request for future missions in that category grows from the $117.9 million requested in FY2022 to $211.5 million in FY2023 and increases robustly thereafter. Funding for sustainable land imaging for follow-on measurements in the Landsat series also increases substantially from a request of $38.3 million in FY2022 to $106.8 milion in FY2023.

But there are challenges in the science budget, too. Last week NASA revealed significant cost growth for its Europa Clipper mission scheduled to launch to Jupiter’s moon Europa in 2024, plus a replan of its Mars Sample Return mission that adds a second lander and stretches the schedule by two years.

NASA officials did not discuss those impacts on the FY2023 budget request at a budget briefing this afternoon, but did say that two science missions are proposed for cancellation — the SOFIA airborne infrared telescope and the Mars Ice Mapper mission. A third, the Near Earth Object Surveyor Mission to search for Earth-threatening asteroids, will be postponed.

The NASA/DLR Stratospheric Observatory for InraRed Astronomy (SOFIA) would be terminated in NASA’s FY2023 budget reuest. Photo credit: NASA/Jim Ross

NASA has proposed terminating SOFIA in the past because the agency and the recent astrophysics Decadal Survey judge its scientific value as not worth the roughly $80 million per year operating costs, but Congress does not agree. For FY2022, it directed NASA to keep SOFIA going and did not increase the budget commensurately, so the Science Mission Directorate will have to figure out how to pay for it. SOFIA is a joint project between NASA and Germany’s space agency, DLR.

Mars Ice Mapper was proposed in NASA’s FY2021 budget request as a cooperative project with the Canadian, Japanese and Italian space agencies to put a radar in orbit around Mars to search for water ice under the Martian surface.  Importantly, it would also be able to relay communications between spacecraft on Mars and Earth. Several NASA and European Space Agency spacecraft orbiting Mars currently do that, but they are getting old. Asked how NASA will replenish the communications infrastructure at Mars if Mars Ice Mapper is cancelled, Science Mission Directorate Deputy Associate Administrator Sandra Connelly said the agency is looking at options including commercial and international partners.

The Near Earth Object Surveyor Mission is just one of several programs that would be delayed agency-wide.  NASA Chief Financial Officer Margaret Vo Schaus identified the others as the Space Technology Mission Directorate’s On-Orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing (OSAM, formerly Restore-L) and Solar Electric Propulsion programs, and the first flights of two Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate aircraft, the X-59 Low Boom Flight Demonstrator and the all-electric X-57.

The marquee program at NASA these days, however, is Artemis. The FY2023 budget request is $7.6 billion, with the goal of putting astronauts back on the Moon by 2025. NASA chose SpaceX to build the Human Landing System (HLS) for that mission, but is starting a competition to find a second contractor so there are two systems to ensure redundancy and competition. The agency just announced the Sustained Lunar Development procurement for a second HLS last week and will also fund SpaceX to develop a more capable version of its lander.

The HLS request for FY2023 is $1.486 billion compared with $1.195 billion requested and appropriated for FY2022. While a 24.3 percent increase, it seems modest considering NASA’s timeline.

Source: NASA FY2023 budget request documentation.

Initial Artemis missions will go to the Moon, but the longer term goal is Mars. During a State of NASA address at Kennedy Space Center today, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said the agency’s plan is for humans to walk on Mars in 2040.

That’s just nine years after the end of that timeline. NASA Associate Administrator Bob Cabana was asked during the budget briefing how the agency expects to get from the Moon to Mars in that timeframe. He replied they are focused on the lunar architecture for now and learning what they need to learn before sending people as far away as Mars.

In the nearer term, NASA is determined to keep the International Space Station operating until commercial alternatives are available to replace it in low Earth orbit (LEO). It took a couple of years for Congress to warm up to the idea of NASA facilitating private sector companies to build Commercial LEO Destinations, but in FY2022 finally approved the full request, $101 million. For FY2023, the request is more than double that — $224.3 million.

The ISS is a cooperative program with Russia and depends on both countries participating in its operations, but after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine questions are arising as to how long the partnership can endure and whether the commercial space stations are needed sooner. Cabana and Kathy Lueders, Associate Administrator for Space Operations, said the request was not related to those recent developments, however. The plan has been in place for “three or four years,” Lueders said.

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