by Douglas Messier
Determined to land astronauts on the moon in time for the 2024 presidential election, the Trump Administration has proposed boosting NASA’s budget by 12 percent, an increase that includes $3.37 billion program for a human lander.
The $25.2 billion plan for fiscal year 2021 is $2.69 billion above the current spending level. More than half the amount, $12.95 billion, would be spent on human space operations in Earth orbit and preparing for missions to the moon.
How the proposal will fair in Congress is unclear. To boost Artemis spending, the Administration has proposed a number of cuts that Congress has rejected in previous Trump budgets. Those reductions include:
- zeroing out the STEM education program;
- deferring work on key elements of the launch system that will get astronauts to the moon;
- reducing the overall science budget;
- canceling three scientific satellite missions;
- shutting down an unique flying astronomical observatory; and,
- saving money by launching a probe to Jupiter on a commercial rocket.
With it duly stipulated that this plan might not survive Congress, let’s dive into what the administration has proposed.
Artemis to the Moon
At nearly $3.4 billion, the Human Landing System (HLS) is the most expensive new element in the budget. NASA wants a vehicle capable of taking two astronauts to the surface.
Budget documents project NASA would spend $21.26 billion on the HLS through FY 2025. That would take the agency through the first projected human landing at the lunar south pole in 2024.
NASA officials said on Monday that the agency expects to award initial HLS contracts in a few months.
In addition to funding the lander, the proposed Exploration R&D budget includes $610.4 million for advanced exploration systems, cis-lunar and surface technologies, and human factors research designed to keep astronauts healthy on extended trips to the moon and Mars.
Lunar Gateway — a small human-tended space station that will orbit the moon — would receive $739.3 million. Budget documents estimate the facility would cost about $2.79 billion through FY 2025.
The Orion crew vehicle that will take astronauts to the moon would receive just over $1.4 billion. That would amount to a small reduction of $6.2 million from FY 2020.
Work would be deferred on three expensive elements of the lunar program that enjoy strong support on Capitol Hill:
- the more powerful Space Launch System (SLS) Block 1B rocket that would increase payload capacity to low Earth orbit (LEO) from 95 to 105 metric tons;
- the Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) that will fly aboard the upgraded booster; and,
- a second mobile launcher platform.
“While the SLS Block 1B configuration with the Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) remains an important future capability, the significant performance and cost challenges faced by NASA’s prime contract, Boeing, in finalizing the Block 1 core stage, requires that NASA and its contractors concentrate in the near term on the successful completion of the Block 1 SLS and reliably manufacturing flight systems,” a budget document stated.
“NASA does not have plans to utilize the second mobile launcher in the near-term, and a final Block 1B design has not been set. Moving forward with further construction and design prior to understanding requirements would lead to future cost, schedule, and safety challenges,” the document added.
Deferring the work would enable the Administration to cut the SLS and Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) by a combined $534.1 million from the amount being spent in the current fiscal year.
Congress has rejected previous attempts by the Trump and Obama administrations to reduce funding for SLS, Orion and EGS. At times, legislators have increased spending above what the programs received during the previous fiscal year.
FY 2020: $1,100,000,000
FY 2021 Proposed: $1,578,300,000
Change: +$478,300,000 (+43.5%)
The technology development budget would rise from $1.1 billion to almost $1.58 billion, an increase of $478.3 million or 43.5 percent. Funding is included for the Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative to support the Artemis program.
The lunar surface technologies planned for demonstrations over the next five years will lead to more affordable missions that are less dependent on support from Earth. These demonstrations include:
- In-Situ Resource Utilization with an emphasis on collecting, processing, storing, and using material found or manufactured on other astronomical objects;
- Sustainable Surface Power, enabling continuous power throughout the lunar day and night;
- Surface Excavation/Construction to enable affordable, autonomous manufacturing and construction;
- Lunar Dust Mitigation enhancements to mitigate lunar dust hazards; and
- Extreme Environments capabilities to operate through the full range of lunar surface and subsurface conditions.
Among the other programs and missions supported by this funding are the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration satellite, solar electric propulsion, space nuclear technologies, CubeSat technology demonstrations, small business grants, and an initiative to improve manufacturing.
LEO and Spaceflight Operations
FY 2020: $4,140,200,000
FY 2021 Proposed: $4,187,300,000
Change: +$47.1 million (+1.1%)
Most of the $4.1 billion in funding goes to paying for operations of the International Space Station, including commercial cargo and crew deliveries to the orbiting facility.
NASA wants to continue crewed activities in Earth orbit as it mounts missions to the moon and Mars. Part of the plan involves continuing to operate ISS beyond its previous retirement date of 2024 so there is an overlap between the two programs.
The space agency is using ISS to retire many human health and technology risks before conducting long-duration missions at the moon and Mars. The original 2024 retirement date would not have allowed the agency to complete all of the planned work.
NASA also wants to commercialize LEO operations so that as ISS is retired the space agency can continue to operate there as one of many customers. For this reason, NASA has requested $150 million to fund the development of commercial capabilities in Earth orbit.
Whether Congress will approve the funding remains to be seen. Last year, it cut the same request to $15 million.
The Commercial Crew program is set to begin flying astronauts to ISS this year after two automated flights in 2019. SpaceX is targeting a flight test of its Crew Dragon vehicle for the second quarter. If that is successful, the vehicle will be certified to carry crews on a commercial basis, likely beginning in FY 2021.
The schedule for Boeing’s Starliner crew vehicle is unclear. An automated flight in December was unable to reach the space station due to a software glitch and communications problems. Another software error, corrected in flight, could have resulted in Starliner burning up in the atmosphere during reentry.
NASA hasn’t decided whether Boeing will need to repeat the automated mission before putting astronauts aboard for a flight test to ISS. Boeing has taken a $410 million charge against earnings in case an additional fight is required.
Boeing is reviewing all of its Starliner software, which totals about one million lines of code. NASA and Boeing are continuing to investigate the flight anomalies, and working to identify and correct the process failures that prevented engineers from finding the errors prior to flight.
FY 2020: $7,138.900.000
FY 2021 Proposed: $6,306,500,000
Change: – $832,400.000 (-11.7%)
The NASA science budget would be cut by more than $832.4 million with the cancellation of three space missions and the shutting down of a flying observatory. The programs on the chopping block include:
- Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST);
- Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud and ocean Ecosystem (PACE);
- Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory Mission Pathfinder (CLARREO Pathfinder) satellites; and,
- Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA).
Congress has previously rejected all of the above cuts. It has also rejected proposed reductions in NASA’s Earth Science budget, which funds the PACE and CLARREO-Pathfinder missions.
Budget documents cited the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is running years behind schedule and billions over budget, as the reason for cancelling WFIRST.
“The Administration is not ready to proceed with another multi-billion-dollar telescope until Webb has been successfully launched and deployed,” the budget document said.
JWST is scheduled to launch on an European Ariane 5 booster in 2021. The massive telescope would receive $415 million under the FY 2021 budget proposal.
PACE and CLARREO-Pathfinder are Earth environmental missions that the administration views as redundant.
“Given existing ocean and climate monitoring missions and future mission plans from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and international partners, demonstrating expanded measurement capabilities is a not a priority for NASA funding,” the document said.
The Administration cited a high operation cost of $80 million and low scientific productivity for canceling SOFIA, which is a flying observatory housed in a modified Boeing 747.
The budget also proposes to save $1.5 billion by launching the Europa Clipper orbiter to study Jupiter’s frozen moon on a commercial rocket instead of on the SLS. Congress has mandated that the Europa orbiter launch on SLS in previous spending bills signed by the president.
Europa Clipper orbiter would receive $403.5 million under the proposed budget, a reduction of $189.1 million from the $592.6 million it received in FY 2020.
“A Europa Lander mission, which was not supported by the science community in the Planetary Science decadal midterm report, is not funded,” a budget document said.
In addition to Europa Clipper, the budget continues to support the following spacecraft missions:
- Mars Sample Return;
- Mars Ice Mapper;
- VIPER lunar rover;
- Lucy and Psyche asteroid missions;
- Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) planetary defense mission;
- Dragonfly drone for exploring Saturn’s moon Titan;
- Landsat-9 Earth observation satellite;
- NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar (NISAR) Earth observation mission;
- Surface Water and Ocean Topography (SWOT) Earth observation satellite;
- Sentinel-6 Earth observation mission;
- Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP);
- Spectro-Photometer for the History of the Universe, Epoch of Reionization and Ices Explorer (SPHEREx);
- Imaging X-ray Polarimetry Explorer (IXPE); and,
- Galactic/Extragalactic ULDB Spectroscopic Terahertz Observatory (GUSTO).
FY 2020: $783,900,000
FY 2021 Proposed: $819,000,000
Change: +$35,100,000 (+4.5%)
Quite supersonic transports, electric aircraft, and urban air mobility are three of the top priorities in NASA’s aeronautics program, which would receive a boost of $35.1 million or 4.5 percent.
The Concorde airplanes could only reach supersonic speeds over oceans because of the loud sonic booms they produced. NASA’s Low-Boom Flight Demonstration mission aims to remove that restriction.
In FY 2021, Lockheed Martin plans to build the X-58 QueSST (“Quiet Supersonic Transport”) experimental airplane for NASA, complete most of its ground tests, and begin preparing it for its first flight test scheduled for January 2022. The proposed budget includes $79.1 million to support work.
NASA would also continue work on developing electric aircraft. The first flight test of the space agency’s X-57 Maxwell electric airplane is set to take place before the end of the current FY 2020 fiscal year on Sept. 30.
“Development of more electric propulsion concepts will also be a key focus area. NASA component testing in the NEAT facility will include simulating higher altitude effects. This capability is the first of its kind in the world, and it is critical for understanding how to design hardware that can safely perform at altitude,” a budget document said.
NASA would also make urban air mobility (UAM) a key priority, with funding devoted to developing quiet vertical vehicles and the airspace systems to enable them to fly safely in populated areas.
“An urban air mobility system that provides safe, economical, and environmentally-friendly means to move people and packages in population centers,” a budget document stated.
FY 2020: $120,000,000
FY 2021 Proposed: $0
Change: -$120,000,000 (-100%)
The Administration has once again proposed zeroing out NASA’s STEM Engagement office. The funding provides grants and awards through the Space Grant, Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), and Minority University Research and Education Project (MUREP) programs.
“NASA will continue to support other Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) activities, such as internships and fellowships, within the Mission Directorates. A functional office at NASA headquarters (funded out of Safety, Security, and Mission Services) will oversee Agency-wide coordination of STEM engagement efforts,” a budget document stated.
Congress has rejected this plan under past Trump budget proposals. Last year, added $10 million to the office’s budget.
Safety, Security and Mission Services
FY 2020: 3,009,900,000
FY 2021 Proposed: $2,913,300,000
Change: +$96,600,000 (+3.3%)
NASA would receive a 3.3 percent boost for this part of its budget, which funds management of the space agency’s geographically dispersed field centers and provides communications, information technology and other services.
“NASA will complete its transformation to an enterprise business model for the delivery of Safety, Security and Mission Support (SSMS) services, to include alignment of associated budgetary resources to the enterprise function,” a budget document said.
“The enterprise business model allows for delivery of services to customers and employees regardless of geographic locations, reduction and elimination of duplicative capabilities, opportunities for employees to work across geographic boundaries, and greater flexibility to adjust to evolving demands and meet surge requirements,” the document added.
Construction and Environmental Compliance and Restoration
FY 2020: $373,400,000
FY 2021 Proposed: 539,100,000
Change: $165,700,000 (+44.4%)
This budget is slated for a 44% boost under the budget proposal. Two related factors are driving the request: the Artemis program and an aging infrastructure that includes more than 5,000 facilities and structures.
“The new technologies, systems, and operational tempo needed to return to the Moon, establish the cis-lunar Gateway, and start human exploration of Mars will challenge NASA program capabilities and require robust, reliable, and resilient Earth-bound facilities and infrastructure to safely and successfully support this new exploration enterprise,” a budget document said.
Major Artemis-related construction projects include repairing the roof of Building 103 at the Michoud Assembly Facility and modification of the launch infrastructure at the Kennedy Space Center.
Other construction and repair projects are designed to support science and space operations.
“More than 83 percent of NASA’s constructed infrastructure is beyond its design life, requiring significant risk management efforts to mitigate risk to current and future missions,” a budget document said. “Apollo and Space Shuttle era legacy infrastructure is especially inefficient and costly to maintain and operate, and suffers from reliability issues as we approach a new era to support lunar and Mars manned missions.”
FY 2020: $41,700,000
FY 2021 Proposed: $44,200,000
Change: +$2,500,000 (+6%)
NASA’s watchdog would get a 6 percent boost from $41.7 million to $44.2 billion. for FY 2021. Once again, Artemis is a major factor.
“The budget funds an additional three Full-Time Equivalent (FTE) [employees’ for expanded OIG activities in support of NASA’s lunar program, known as Artemis, and to cover increased costs when a new contract is awarded for the financial statement audit,” a budget document stated.
“In addition, the budget funds OIG payroll and benefits, including retirement costs, a 1 percent increase in base pay for civilian employees in 2021, and increases in employee awards for FY 2021,” the document added.