If Congress’s new spending plan is passed, some significant NASA programmes that have been underfunded in recent years may finally receive full funding. NASA’s mission to create a new human lunar lander, as well as a programme to develop new commercial space stations in low Earth orbit, would be fully financed, as requested in the president’s budget.
In total, NASA would earn $24.041 billion in fiscal year 2022 under this new measure, which funds the US government for the next fiscal year. NASA’s share is about $800 million less than President Joe Biden’s budget request in May of 2021, which called for $24.8 billion. However, NASA’s total spending for fiscal year 2021, which was $23.27 billion, would see a modest increase.
Despite the fact that Congress’s plan does not entirely finance the president’s budget request, there are a few projects that House and Senate members have agreed to fully support. The bill would provide the full $1.195 billion requested by NASA for its human landing system. As part of NASA’s Artemis mission, which aims to send the first woman and person of colour to the Moon, the agency is now constructing a new human lunar lander. Congress had previously shown reluctance to provide NASA with the funds it asked for the lander. Appropriators only provided $850 million of the $3.4 billion sought for the lander in 2021.
NASA altered their Artemis plans as a result of the funding shortfall. Initially, NASA wanted to select at least two commercial businesses to build human lunar landers for Artemis in order to stimulate competition and ensure redundancy. With only a quarter of the funding available, NASA chose only one company, SpaceX, to convert their Starship vehicle into a lander, citing the company’s low cost as a major factor in its decision.
Now, if NASA gets the money it wants for the landing system this year, Congress wants NASA to “deliver a publicly available plan explaining how it will ensure safety, redundancy, sustainability, and competition” in the human lunar lander programme within 30 days of the bill’s signing. Congress is also requesting that NASA give a thorough description of the resources it will require to fulfil those objectives through 2026. Although an earlier version of a House appropriation bill indicated worry about NASA’s choice to chose just one company to develop a human lander, the text does not clearly state that it must choose a second company.
The agency’s initiative to create a successor to the International Space Station is another area where NASA has been notoriously underfunded. The ISS, which is located in low Earth orbit, is financed until 2024, while the Biden administration has announced intentions to extend its operations until 2030. (However, given the current situation, it’s uncertain whether Russia will agree to this.) Regardless, NASA expects that at the end of the space station mission, the private space industry will have been groomed into developing their own commercial space stations to take over the domain of low Earth orbit. They could serve as landing pads for NASA astronauts in the post-ISS period.
However, NASA has had difficulty raising funds for this interim mission. NASA proposed $150 million for fiscal years 2020 and 2021, however Congress only provided $15 million for the first year and then $17 million for the second. NASA, on the other hand, asked $101.1 million for 2022, and appropriators included the entire amount in the revised bill.
The funding for NASA’s other programmes has been relatively consistent. The Space Launch System rocket and the Orion crew capsule, two of NASA’s most important human spaceflight projects, would receive their full funding, with a bit more than sought for SLS. Science will receive $7.614 billion, which is less than the budget proposal but more than the previous year. NASA would also get the full $653 million it requested for a Mars sample return mission, which would transport samples acquired by NASA’s Perseverance rover back to Earth. Moreover, despite concerns for its cancellation, NASA’s SOFIA programme, a flying observatory aboard a modified Boeing 747, continues to get funds.
There are also flaws in other areas. However, even the high-profile projects, such as the human lunar lander and commercial space station development, aren’t yet able to spend all of their funds. According to the law, these and other projects will only receive 40% of their money unless NASA’s administrator presents a multi-year plan for Artemis and NASA’s Moon efforts, which includes dates for important milestones, partnerships, and more, as well as funding projections to meet these goals. While funding for some NASA programmes has increased, there is still work to be done before the money can be put to good use.
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