NASA Seeks $26B To Advance Human Exploration, Climate Science

Credit: NASA

HOUSTON—NASA’s spending would continue to rise through the 2020s under the Biden administration’s $25.97 billion fiscal 2023 budget request submitted to Congress March 28.

The financial road map laid out in the request supports establishing a sustained human presence at the Moon, turning to the private sector for future human low Earth orbit operations, an ambitious Mars Sample Return (MSR), and greater shared scrutiny of the Earth’s environment to assess climate change.

On March 15, President Biden signed a $24.04 billion consolidated appropriations measure for the 2022 fiscal year that got underway on Oct. 1, 2021, that was up $770 million over the 2021 fiscal year total. The 2023 request represents a $1.93 billion, or 8%, annual increase and a record high for science.

The 2023 White House request forecasts incremental annual increases in NASA’s budget, which would reach $28.11 billion by fiscal 2027.

In terms of the agency’s major space and science directorates, the 2023 request compares to the 2022 appropriation as follows:

• Deep Space Exploration Systems, $7.48 billion versus $6.79 billion, a 10% increase to support the Artemis initiative’s Space Launch System, Orion crew capsule and Exploration Ground Systems, multiple commercially provided Human Landing Systems, a lunar-orbiting Gateway station and a new generation of spacesuits to establish a permanent human presence at the Moon and prepare for human expeditions to Mars by 2040.

• Science, a record $7.99 billion versus $7.61 billion, a 5% increase in support of Earth and planetary science, astrophysics and heliophysics missions, including the MSR mission in partnership with the European Space Agency (ESA); Europa Clipper, a mission to assess Jupiter’s eruptive icy moon Europa as a possible habitable environment; and the development of the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope for studies of dark energy and the universe’s expansion.

• Space Operations,  $4.26 billion versus $4.04 billion, a $220 million, or 5.4% increase in support of International Space Station (ISS) operations, which NASA intends to continue through 2030, and plans for a transition of ISS research activities to commercial orbital outposts beginning in the late 2020s.

• Space Technology, $1.44 billion versus $1.1 billion, a 31% increase to finance the development of new technologies, including those for lunar exploration, as well as developing a nuclear thermal propulsion capability for human missions to Mars.

“Establishing a long-term human presence on the Moon and conducting the first human mission to the surface of Mars will be among the most challenging technical enterprises in human history,” notes support documentation for NASA’s 2023 budget request. “This era of human exploration will require innovative technologies and systems, some of which have not yet been demonstrated, to explore new and more challenging locations, like the lunar south pole. Developing these capabilities will spur advancements in fields like space medicine, cryogenic storage, space power, materials science, and in-space manufacturing and assembly.”

In a “State of NASA” address from the agency’s Kennedy Space Center that accompanied the release of the request, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson put it like this: “Now, the Apollo generation has passed the torch to the Artemis generation.”

In his remarks at Kennedy as well as a citation in the budget request, Nelson also stressed a growing agency commitment to addressing climate change.

“The FY 2023 Budget enables NASA to provide the world with data from its existing fleet of Earth-observing satellites and invest in a future Earth System Observatory (ESO),” he noted, referencing a new initiative including satellites, instruments, and missions focused on generating successive three-dimensional holistic views of interactions between the Earth’s atmosphere, oceans and landforms to launch by the end of the decade in collaboration with commercial and international partners.

“From bedrock to atmosphere, the Earth is a system. As that system changes, NASA will help us all measure and understand the nature of that change, and how we might mitigate an existential threat to our way of life,” Nelson stressed.

“We need more information and we need it faster,” Katherine Calvin, NASA’s recently named chief scientist and senior climate advisor, said of the ESO and a companion Earth Information Center. “The ESO is the next generation of satellite missions that will launch by the end of this decade and give us a 3D holistic view of our Earth System at a level of precision and accuracy that we have never seen before and doing it under open science principles.”

As part of agency’s human lunar exploration strategy, the Deep Space Exploration Systems’ Artemis Campaign Development line would rise to $2.6 billion under the 2023 request, supporting the competition to provide commercial Human Lander Systems (HLS) beyond what SpaceX is attempting to develop, as well as the first two Artemis-era missions that are to return astronauts to the lunar surface.

Last week, NASA unveiled a Sustaining Lunar Development program strategy that seeks a second commercial HLS provider, a rocket able to transport astronauts on roundtrips between lunar orbit and the Moon’s surface once they arrive in NASA Orion crew capsules launched by Space Launch System rockets.

 Congress drastically cut NASA’s 2021 $3.4 billion budget request for HLS, which would have supported funding two competing teams, down to $850 million, prompting the selection of a single provider, SpaceX. That choice was unsuccessfully challenged in the following months by competing teams led by Blue Origin and Dynetics.

The return of humans to the lunar surface on Artemis III, planned for 2025, is to be followed by additional missions on an annual cadence for about a decade, according to Nelson. That  would lead to the assembly of the Gateway with a robot arm and airlock by 2027, a lunar terrain vehicle for astronauts to expand their exploration reach on the Moon’s surface by 2028, and a four-person lunar surface habititat at the Moon’s south pole by 2031.

While the agency transitions its human exploration focus from the International Space Station to deep space, it intends to move its low Earth orbit (LEO) astronaut activities to commercial free flyers beginning in the late 2020s.

To support that goal, NASA is seeking $224.3 million for fiscal 2023 under the Space Operations’ Commercial LEO Development budget line, up from the $101.1 million appropriated for 2022 and the $15 million allocated during each of the two previous years by an initially reluctant Congress.

Looking beyond the Moon, the Science request for 2023 includes $822 million for MSR, which will return samples of the Martian surface currently being gathered by NASA’s Perseverance rover to Earth for analysis. The materials could hold evidence of past biological activity on the red planet.

The mission’s complexity has prompted a re-evaluation of the cost, previously estimated at $7 billion, and changes in execution that call for two rather than one lander to deliver a rover to gather the samples cached by Perseverance, and a rocket to launch them to a waiting Earth-return Mars orbiter. The projected MSR launch for the landers has shifted from 2026 to 2028 and the planned sample return date has moved from 2031 to 2033.

The Space Technology Mission Directorate 2023 request also includes $15 million to pursue a preliminary design with industry for a rocket nuclear propulsion fission reactor for Mars and other deep-space destinations. NASA has also collaborated with the Department of Energy and the Defense Research Advanced Projects Agency in the field. The directorate also plans to evaluate nuclear electric propulsion thrusters.

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.