lunar lander
The final version of the human lunar lander call for proposals allows companies to dock their landers directly to an Orion spacecraft and skip the Gateway, at least for the first lunar landing mission. Credit: NASA

Updated 6:45 p.m. with NASA budget teleconference and other comments.

WASHINGTON — The White House is proposing to increase NASA’s budget by more than two and a half billion dollars in fiscal year 2021, providing substantially increased funding for the Artemis program while seeking once again to cancel several science and education programs.

The budget proposal, released by the Office of Management and Budget Feb. 10, requests $25.246 billion for NASA in the 2021 fiscal year that starts Oct. 1. That is a 12% increase from the $22.629 billion that Congress appropriated for NASA for fiscal year 2020.

“This is a 21st century budget worthy of 21st century space exploration, and one of our strongest budgets in NASA history,” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said in a “State of NASA” speech at the Stennis Space Center. “If the president’s support for NASA wasn’t clear before, it should be obvious now.”

A major beneficiary of that additional funding is NASA’s Artemis program, which seeks to return humans to the moon by 2024. The budget requests more than $3.3 billion for development of human landing systems, an effort that received just $600 million in 2020. “The strategy for developing these landers relies on competition, industry innovation, and robust Government oversight with the goal of delivering safe, reliable landing systems that can enable affordable and sustainable exploration,” a fact sheet accompanying the budget stated.

NASA is currently reviewing proposals submitted last fall for initial Human Landing System contracts. Bridenstine said he expected the agency to make those awards in the “coming months.”

The budget funds several other lunar initiatives, including $175 million for lunar spacesuits, $212 million for initial work on lunar rovers and a surface habitat and $430 million for a new Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative that will fund technology demonstrations such power generation and utilization of lunar resources. NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) program would get $254 million for robotic lander missions delivering NASA research payloads.

“NASA is serious about meeting our 2024 goal” for returning humans to the moon, Bridenstine said. The budget did not include an estimate of how much Artemis itself would cost to achieve that goal over and above original plans, but the overall “Moon-to-Mars campaign,” which includes exploration systems, technology development and science programs, has a cost estimate of $71.3 billion for fiscal years 2021 through 2025, and $87.7 billion when including funds allocated for fiscal years 2019 and 2020.

In a conference call with reporters later Feb. 10, NASA Deputy Administrator Jim Morhard said that the cost of the Artemis program through the first human landing on the moon in 2024 was estimated to be $35 billion. That is somewhat higher than a range of $20 billion to $30 billion that Bridenstine gave in an interview last year, a range he later suggested was too high.

The budget also supports robotic exploration of Mars, with $529 million allocated for future Mars missions, such as sample return. The budget would also start work on a new mission to map near-surface water ice deposits on the planet that could be used by future human missions.

Déjà vu budget cuts

The budget proposal, though, offers a “greatest hits” list of programs that the agency once again seeks to cancel. That includes the Office of STEM Engagement, the CLARREO Pathfinder and PACE Earth science missions, and the WFIRST astrophysics mission. The 2021 budget proposal is the fourth in a row that sought to close NASA’s education office and cancel CLARREO Pathfinder and PACE, and the third in a row that proposed cancelling WFIRST. Congress rejected previous efforts to cancel those programs.

The budget also sought to cancel the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), an airborne observatory that costs NASA about $80 million a year to operate. An OMB document stated that SOFIA is NASA’s second most expensive astrophysics mission to operate, after Hubble, “yet the mission has not delivered high quality data products or science on par with other large science missions” and that future projections “do not indicate a dramatic improvement in SOFIA’s scientific productivity in the next few years.” NASA recently completed a pair of studies that identified ways to streamline SOFIA operations and increase its scientific productivity.

NASA similarly proposed terminating SOFIA in its fiscal year 2015 budget request during the Obama administration, only to have Congress reject that proposal and fully fund the observatory.

The budget also proposes to defer work on the Exploration Upper Stage needed for the more powerful Block 1B version of the SLS. “The Administration proposes to focus efforts on successfully completing the first SLS rocket and preparing it for its first flight before engaging on a costly multi-year Block 1B upgrade program that is not needed for lunar exploration over the next decade,” the OMB stated.

In the media call, Sean McCarville, budget account manager for science in NASA’s office of the chief financial officer, noted that the budget request for science overall was the second highest to date even taking into account the Earth science and astrophysics cuts. When asked why NASA was once again trying to cancel those programs after past proposals were rejected by Congress, he noted there were constraints in the budget “and we had to make decisions.”

One key senator, though, is already raising questions about those cuts. “I am disappointed the budget would cut STEM education, which plays a vital role in making certain we have the talent to achieve our mission,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), who chairs the Senate appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, in a Feb. 10 statement. “While it is encouraging to see a proposed budget that supports returning American astronauts to the Moon, I remain eager to receive sufficient budget details to match our ambitious human exploration goals.”

The fiscal year 2021 budget release coincided with a “Day of Action” by the advocacy group The Planetary Society, where more than 100 members visited congressional offices to call for support for NASA’s work in topics ranging from human space exploration to planetary defense and the search for life beyond Earth.

“This is a great time to be a space advocate,” said Casey Dreier, chief advocate for the organization, in a statement. “The next decade of human spaceflight is being debated right now. So is the future of robotic exploration at Mars and beyond. Critical investments are proposed for planetary defense. It is essential that the public participates in this discussion to ensure a bright future for space exploration.”

Budget Request (in millions of dollars)

AccountFY20 EnactedFY21 ProposalDifference
– Earth Science$1,971.8$1,768.1-$203.7
– Planetary Science$2,713.4$2,659.6-$53.8
– Astrophysics$1,729.2$1,245.7-$483.5
– Heliophysics$724.5$633.0-$91.5
SPACE TECHNOLOGY$1,100.0$1,578.3$478.3
– Orion$1,406.7$1,400.5-$6.2
– Space Launch System$2,585.9$2,257.1-$328.8
– Exploration Ground Systems$590.0$384.7-$205.3
– Exploration R&D$1,435.0$4,719.4$3,284.4
SPACE OPERATIONS$4,140.2$4,187.3$47.1
STEM ENGAGEMENT$120.0$0.0-$120.0

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...