President Joe Biden's federal budget proposal for 2022 gives NASA more science funding than ever before while continuing to pave the way for the next human moon landing in 2024.
The White House's $6 trillion federal spending bill, released Friday (May 28), gives NASA a total of $24.8 billion, including "the largest budget request for NASA science, ever," NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said Friday in a news conference. "The Biden administration is proving that science is back," he added. Of the agency's total proposed budget, about $7.9 billion will go to the agency's science division, a 9% increase from 2021.
Meanwhile, the Biden administration proposed a 5% increase in funding for deep-space exploration systems, which includes hardware for NASA's Artemis program, which is working to send astronauts to the moon by 2024. And although Biden did not propose delaying the 2024 moon landing — a timeline set by the previous presidential administration — NASA Chief Financial Officer Steve Shinn acknowledged that the ambitious mission could be delayed.
"Space is hard," Shinn said in Friday's news conference. "When you go farther and farther away from the Earth with new technologies, we have seen, historically, delays," he said. "I know the goal is 2024, but I think we have to be brutally realistic ... because space development is so hard, there could be delays to that schedule for the first demonstration flight of landing humans [on the moon] and returning them safely to Earth."
Although NASA's deep-space exploration budget includes $1.2 billion for the human landing system (HLS) that will bring "the first woman and the first person of color on the moon," as Nelson said, the agency has not yet figured out who will build it.
NASA announced in April that it had selected SpaceX to build the lander, after which Blue Origin and Dynetics, two of the company's competitors for that contract, filed protests to the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) in response. The GAO has until Aug. 4 to decide whether NASA should award a second contract to build a second, redundant HLS.
If the GAO decides in favor of Blue Origin and Dynetics, Congress and NASA will need to come up with a budget amendment to fund the additional lander. (Such an amendment has already been submitted as part of the $195 billion Endless Frontiers Act, which aims to boost American technological competitiveness. The amendment would give NASA an additional $10 billion to nurture the development of a second privately built crewed lunar lander. The Endless Frontiers Act is still working its way through Congress, however, so it's unclear if NASA will get the money.)
"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, which is thought to be in 2024," Shinn said.
As that comment suggests, Artemis is about more than just the planned 2024 landing. The program aims to establish a long-term human presence on and around the moon by the end of the 2020s, as a way to help NASA prepare for its next giant leap — crewed missions to Mars.
After the prior presidential administration repeatedly tried to cut NASA's Earth science missions, Biden's budget gives Earth science a 12% boost with $2.3 billion in funding for the year.
However, NASA's iconic airborne observatory SOFIA (short for Stratospheric Observatory For Infrared Astronomy) is once again on the chopping block. Part of NASA's astrophysics division, SOFIA has been making flights to study the cosmos from up in the stratosphere since 2010, although it has been grounded several times for maintenance.
"This budget does recommend the termination or least shutdown of the SOFIA mission. It has completed its primary mission and funding has consistently been added back by Congress, but it is, in terms of dollars and analysis, the second most expensive operating mission in astrophysics," Shinn said.
Commercializing low Earth orbit
NASA may be planning to end its involvement with the International Space Station someday, but the agency isn't ditching low Earth orbit (LEO) altogether.
Biden's budget request for 2022 features a big boost in funding for commercial development of low Earth orbit, with a budget of $101.1 million — up nearly 500% from the previous year. This covers commercial cargo and crew launches to the International Space Station, like SpaceX's Dragon missions, "as well as funding our partnerships with industry to develop commercial destinations in LEO," Shinn said.
In other words, NASA will have the resources to help private companies start to develop their own space stations. NASA's funding for the International Space Station hasn't decreased, either — Biden has proposed a $1.3 million budget for the orbiting lab, a meager 0.5% increase from last year's budget.
Absent from Biden's 2022 budget request for NASA is money to purchase seats on Russia's Soyuz spacecraft, which NASA relied on completely to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station for about a decade after the space shuttle program ended.
NASA started flying astronauts on SpaceX's Crew Dragon vehicles in the last year — and it plans to start flying astronauts on Boeing's Starliner capsule soon — but Soyuz missions aren't off the table, Shinn said. "We still have a reciprocity agreement," he said, adding that NASA has "no plans of Soyuz purchases, but we still have been planning to use those vehicles either way."
Biden's budget proposal must be approved by both the House and the Senate before it goes into effect. Congress has until the end of September to make that happen and avoid a potential government shutdown.
Email Hanneke Weitering at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter @hannekescience. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.