NASA’s Space Exploration Agenda Moves Ahead Under 2023 Omnibus

Artemis Apollo launches
Credit: NASA

HOUSTON—NASA will continue its effort to establish a sustainable human presence at the Moon and keep pursuing a number of science and technology objectives under the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2023 signed into law by President Joe Biden.

Other objectives include developing commercial successors to the International Space Station (ISS), returning samples from Mars to Earth and detecting asteroid/comet impact threats.

While vacationing in the Virgin Islands, Biden late Dec. 29 signed the $1.7 trillion, 4,155-page omnibus measure that funds all government agencies through Sept. 30, 2023. His signature followed passage of the omnibus appropriations bill, H.R.2617, by the Senate 68-29 on Dec. 22 and the House 225-201-1 on Dec. 23.

NASA’s share is $25.38 billion. That is $600 million less than the agency’s 2023 budget request but $1.34 billion more than for fiscal 2022, which ended on Sept. 30 without congressional enactment of a fiscal 2023 budget. The last in a series of three budget continuing resolutions that prevented a government shutdown was set to expire at midnight Dec. 30.

“The choice is clear: We can either do our jobs and fund the federal government, which is undoubtedly in the interest of the American people, or we can abandon our responsibilities without a real path forward,” Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.), chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, said as the politically controversial omnibus emerged prior to a transition from a Democratic-led to a Republican-led Congress on Jan. 3.

In terms of NASA’s major space and science directorates, the 2023 omnibus compared with the 2023 White House request and the 2022 appropriation are as follows:

*Deep space exploration: a $7.47 billion 2023 consolidated appropriation compared with a $7.48 billion White House request and a $6.79 billion appropriation for 2022.

*Space operations: a $4.25 billion 2023 consolidated appropriation compared with a $4.26 billion White House request and $4.04 billion appropriation for 2022.

*Space technology: a $1.2 billion 2023 consolidated appropriation compared with a $1.44 billion White House request and $1.1 billion appropriation for 2022.

*Science: a $7.79 billion 2023 consolidated appropriation compared with a $7.99 billion White House request and $7.6 billion appropriation for 2022.

In terms of human deep space exploration, the 2023 omnibus provides $1.34 billion for the Orion crew capsule and $2.6 billion for the Space Launch System (SLS), including $600 million for continued development of the SLS Block 1B upgrade with the Exploration Upper Stage for introduction during the Artemis IV mission. The 1B is expected to boost the capability of launching Orion crews plus payloads to the Moon by an additional 11-15 tons and is intended for future deep space science missions.

The space exploration budget line includes $799 million to prepare the Exploration Ground Systems (EGS) at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida for future Artemis missions. The EGS line includes up to $281.35 million for a second mobile launcher (ML-2) to support launches of the upgraded SLS. But the omnibus notes that the ML-2 appropriation represents at most half the total needed to address recent cost increases in new launch platform development while requiring NASA to look for “other resources” to meet cost requirements without disrupting other “congressional priorities.”

Not less than $1.485 billion is designated for continued pursuit of a second commercial lunar Human Landing System (HLS) provider. SpaceX won a contested 2021 contract to provide a means of transporting SLS-Orion-launched astronauts from lunar orbit to the lunar surface and back to lunar orbit for the Artemis III and IV missions. The 2023 spending measure stressed the need for multiple HLS providers while urging NASA to establish a program office for developing astronaut habitats for the Moon’s surface.

On the space technology front, the omnibus provides $40 million to pursue development of lunar surface power generation with vertical solar arrays and nuclear fission using the agency’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services contractor lineup. The goal is a lunar surface demonstration mission by 2026.

The space technology budget designates $110 million for continued development of a nuclear-thermal-propulsion reactor, fuel and associated technology. NASA is encouraged to establish a regular cadence of long-duration robotic missions using the nuclear technologies for the Moon and Mars. The omnibus designates $15 million to develop nuclear electric propulsion.

Focused primarily on low-Earth-orbit operations—including the ISS, whose NASA-led operations are now authorized through the end of 2030—the space operations budget line provides up to $224.3 million to continue efforts to transition its ISS astronaut research and development activities to commercial free flyers ahead of an ISS end of operations. The line also designates $10 million for NASA to pursue a commercial strategy for deorbiting the ISS at the end of its life.

Highest funded within the NASA budget architecture, the focus of space science-backed missions range from Earth science and climate change to astrobiology and the birth of the universe and its evolution.

The omnibus funds initial missions for an Earth System Observatory (ESO). They were proposed as part of the 2023 White House NASA budget request to develop a means of providing three-dimensional holistic views of interactions among the Earth’s atmosphere, landforms and oceans. The missions are to be conducted by the end of the decade with international and commercial partners. The ESO is planned to include a companion Earth Information Center for ESO data sharing.

The legislation calls on NASA to provide estimated annual costs and schedules for initial ESO missions as part of the agency’s 2024 budget request while stressing the value of competition among mission proposals. “An increase in competed, principal investigator missions will encourage responsible cost and schedule constraints, develop remote-sensing technologies and leverage the talents and expertise of scientists at universities and research institutions,” the omnibus said in part.

Mars Sample Return (MSR)—a joint mission led by NASA and the European Space Agency (ESA) to bring back to Earth samples of Martian rock and regolith gathered by NASA’s Perseverance rover—received the requested $822.3 million. The multimission MSR elements are to launch in 2027 and 2028 to gather and return samples by 2033 so they can be analyzed with the latest laboratory technologies for evidence of past microbial life. NASA must respond within 45 days to a request from legislators as part of the omnibus with a description of efforts underway to prevent cost increases related to possible launch delays.

The omnibus provides $90 million for continued development of the Near-Earth Object (NEO) Surveyor mission, a space observatory designed to identify, track and characterize asteroids and comets that could pose an impact threat to Earth. Although the launch has slipped to no earlier than 2028, NASA already missed a congressional mandate to detect 90% of the NEOs that could pose an impact threat by 2020.

The budget measure also appropriates $482.2 million for development of the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope under a $3.5 billion development cost cap. Intended for launch between late 2026 and early 2027, the observatory is to launch aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket to the Sun-Earth Lagrange Point 2—a gravitationally stable realm about 1 million mi. from Earth—to study dark energy (a force responsible for the expansion of the universe) and dark matter (a galactic gravitational force). Equipped with a technologically challenging coronagraph, the Roman telescope is expected to be able to block the light of individual stars with extrasolar planets so the planets can be studied for the presence of possible biosignatures.

Mark Carreau

Mark is based in Houston, where he has written on aerospace for more than 25 years. While at the Houston Chronicle, he was recognized by the Rotary National Award for Space Achievement Foundation in 2006 for his professional contributions to the public understanding of America's space program through news reporting.