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The Trump administration calls for big budget increases for NASA to fund Moon-to-Mars program

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Will Congress agree to the increase?

The core of NASA’s Space Launch System, which was recently completed earlier this year
Image: NASA

President Trump is requesting a 12 percent increase to NASA’s budget for next year to help ensure the agency sends humans back to the surface of the Moon by 2024. The administration’s proposed budget, released today, provides NASA with $25.2 billion for fiscal year 2021, a major increase over the $22.6 billion the agency received this year.

If enacted as is, the budget would be the largest financial bump the space agency has received in decades. Nearly half of the budget — $12.3 billion — would go toward funding NASA’s Artemis program, the ambitious plan to put the first woman on the lunar surface within the next five years. Nearly $3.4 billion of that would be invested in developing new commercial landers to take humans to and from the lunar surface, while more than $700 million would go toward funding activities on the Moon.

“NASA’s top-priority mission is to return American astronauts to the Moon by 2024 and build a sustainable presence on the lunar surface as the first step on a journey that will take America to Mars,” the president’s budget request states. The budget emphasizes that the ultimate goal of Artemis is to get humans to Mars. Supplemental budget materials argue that NASA’s activities on the Moon are meant to gain experience and test technologies that will help send NASA astronauts to the Red Planet someday. And to make sure Mars is not forgotten, an additional $233 million is earmarked for precursory robotic missions to the Red Planet, as part of Artemis.

While NASA’s human exploration initiatives would get a giant boost with this proposal, the budget request cancels many of the same science programs that have been in the president’s crosshairs since he took office. The request doesn’t provide any funding for the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, a giant new space observatory that Trump has repeatedly tried to cancel in past requests. The report also calls for the cancellation of two Earth science missions — PACE and CLARREO Pathfinder — again, while getting rid of NASA’s office of STEM Engagement. This year, the administration also wants to cancel NASA’s SOFIA mission, a specially outfitted 747 plane that serves as an airborne observatory, arguing that it “has not proven to be as scientifically productive as other missions.”

NASA’s SOFIA observatory
Image: NASA

The proposal isn’t a done deal, though. The president’s budget request is just the beginning of a very long process that will determine NASA’s budget for next year. Both the House and Senate appropriators will have to weigh in, and it’s unclear how much of this request lawmakers will keep when they draft their proposals. In the past, Congress has ignored the Trump administration’s attempts to cancel certain NASA projects, and it’s likely lawmakers will continue to follow that trend.

After the White House released its budget request, NASA provided more details about the proposal, revealing just how much money the agency expects to need to fund the Artemis program over the next five years. NASA envisions needing upward of $26 to $27 billion every year for the next five years, topping out at $28.6 billion for 2023. It comes close to the estimate that NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine made last year, regarding the overall cost of the Artemis program. He argued NASA would likely need an extra $20 to $30 billion over the next five years to make the Artemis Moon landings happen. All in all, the budget calls for the entire Moon-to-Mars program to require $71 billion until 2024, which includes programs that have been in place since before Artemis was created.

Core to NASA’s Artemis program are two pieces of hardware that the agency has been developing for the last decade: a massive deep-space rocket known as the Space Launch System (SLS) and a new crew capsule called Orion, designed to carry humans to deep-space destinations. Both of those programs, which have strong congressional support, are well funded in this request, with the SLS receiving $2.25 billion for next year and Orion receiving $1.4 billion. Following years of delays, the rocket and capsule are expected to make their debut flight together sometime in 2021.

NASA’s administrator Jim Bridenstine speaks about the new presidential budget request
Image: NASA

Though the SLS receives full funding, the request does propose deferring development of a new, more powerful upper portion of the rocket. The administration argues that the new hardware is too costly and not needed to get humans to the Moon by 2024.

The request also puts an emphasis on commercially developed vehicles. The administration calls for NASA to use a commercial rocket to launch the agency’s flagship mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa. Right now, NASA is mandated by Congress to use the SLS to fly the mission. NASA’s budget documents claim that using an existing commercial vehicle — such as the Falcon Heavy or the Delta IV Heavy — instead of the SLS will save the agency $1.5 billion.

Additionally, the budget proposal wants the human lunar landers to be commercially developed — something that has become somewhat controversial for lawmakers. The administration also wants commercial rockets to launch the pieces of a new space station NASA is hoping to build around the Moon, called the Gateway.

As for the International Space Station, the request provides funding for the project through 2025. That stands in contrast to an earlier budget request from 2018, in which the Trump administration proposed ending direct funding for the ISS by the end of 2024. The president’s recent requests no longer call for the cancellation of the ISS by 2024, but this proposal does emphasize the desire for NASA to transition control of the space station and the domain of low Earth orbit to commercial companies that might want to operate their own stations in orbit around our planet. NASA has requested $150 million to aid with this transition.

Overall, the Trump administration is proposing a robust budget for NASA, one the agency hasn’t seen in quite some time. And if NASA is expected to get to the Moon fast, it’s going to need a large increase in funding to at least attempt to meet its deadline. But many congressional lawmakers have already expressed skepticism of NASA’s Artemis program, doubting the need to land humans by 2024 — a fairly political deadline that would coincide with the end of a second possible term for Trump. Plus, the big increase for NASA is being requested while the administration is eyeing cuts to domestic aid programs, as well as the Environmental Protection Agency.

It’s doubtful the administration will get as much as it wants for the space agency, despite Trump personally calling on Congress to fund the Artemis program in his State of the Union speech. The year ahead will show exactly how much lawmakers are willing to give and what they believe NASA’s priorities should be.