Space research, like much else in capitalist societies, is driven by funding. The biggest source of that funding for that space research is usually the US government. Which is why, when US presidents release their budget proposals, the space community takes notice. Especially because that budget affects NASA, the largest space funding agency in the world. With a new year and new administration comes a new budget and with the 2021 proposed budget comes a nice funding increase for NASA.
The proposed budget was released on April 9th, and, at 58 pages, goes into high level details about almost every part of federal spending. The section regarding NASA is only about a page long, but has some useful hints at how the new administration views the role of its space exploration arm. In order to fulfill that role, the administration plans to spend $24.7 billion on the agency, an increase of 6.3% over the funded level last year.
Some of that money will go to one of the administrations biggest focal points – climate change. The administration had already released an infrastructure plan that focused on alleviating climate change. NASA is also being roped into the effort, as it is well placed to help contribute to this priority through it’s combination of satellite monitoring and Earth Science research. $2.3 billion is earmarked to go directly towards understanding and alleviating climate change, a 10% increase over the prior year.
The biggest chunk of the budget ($6.9 billion) will go to the Artemis program, the US’s effort to land astronauts on the moon again. The program reached a deal with SpaceX today to provide it’s lunar landing module. While this funding level is an increase of $325 million over the previous year, in that previous year NASA had asked for almost double the current amount provided for this program. It’s unclear whether the current funding level is capable of supporting the program’s mission to land a person on the moon by 2024.
Although a specific funding number wasn’t mentioned for any individual project, various robotic missions were mentioned as part of the budget proposal. These include the Europa Clipper, Dragonfly, and Mars Sample Return mission that is the follow-up to Perseverance. Also the budget specifically calls out the Roman Space Telescope, supporting a project that had previously been on the chopping block.
Other funding categories specifically called out in the proposal were Space Technology R&D, STEM workforce training, and ISS support. The research and development NASA will fund for will focus on providing technologies to empower the commercial space industry as well as create more efficient aerospace tools in order to fight climate change.
At $20 million, the educational side of NASA might seem like a drop in the bucket in terms of the overall cost of the program. However, its increase at 16% was actually the highest specifically called out in the NASA part of the budget, and again marks a sharp departure from the previous administration’s efforts to defund the educational outreach efforts of the space organization. The ISS is also still in good stead, with $3 billion going towards its continual operation and research performed on the space station.
Other aerospace related agencies would also benefit from increased budgets in the new proposal. These include the National Science Foundation, which funds a significant amount of planetary science, which has a requested increase of 20% to bring it’s funding to $10.2 billion.
The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) would also get a $500 million boost to bring it’s total budget to $2 billion. NOAA has its own array of Earth-observing satellites that would also be useful in the fight against climate change.
There are other space-facing parts of agencies that aren’t specifically called out in the budget, such as the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. However, given the general theme of the budget, those programs would be seemingly well supported.
As with all things to do in US politics, however, this budget is no sure thing. It will still have to get through Congress, which is notorious for their fights over budgets. While the increases mentioned above might not survive political realities, it at least points to what the new administration values in space exploration, and proves that they are willing to fund it in order to achieve their goals.
White House – Summary of the President’s Discretionary Funding Request
SpaceNews – Biden administration proposes $24.7 billion budget for NASA in 2022
Space.com – Biden proposes $24.7 billion NASA budget in 2022 to support moon exploration and more
PACE Spacecraft that was put on the chopping block by the Trump administration but could be funded again via Biden’s proposed budget.
Credit: NASA / GSFC