President Donald Trump is calling for a 12% increase in NASA’s budget for 2021, a bump largely targeted at transforming the administration’s goal of landing people on the lunar surface by 2024 from ambitious dream to tangible reality.
The proposal requests $25.2 billion for NASA in 2021 — the agency got $22.6 billion in 2020 — with a dedicated $3.4 billion in funding for a human-rated moon lander system, the first time since the Apollo program in the 1960s that NASA could get dedicated funding for that kind of hardware. The space agency plans to return to the moon under a new program called Artemis that would put boots on lunar powder in four years.
“This is a 21st century budget worthy of 21st century space exploration,” said NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine during a speech Monday.
Of course, Trump’s budget will have to go before the critical eyes in Congress, which means the final number will likely change.
“It’s a starting point of a process of negotiation and compromise,” said John Logsdon, professor emeritus of political science and international affairs at George Washington University. “I think at the end, it’s also a test of whether the country is serious about resuming human exploration.”
There is no doubt the White House is committed to getting back to the moon “sooner rather than later,” Logsdon said. Only one department got a larger funding increase than NASA under the president’s proposal: Veterans Affairs, another Trump area of focus, would see a 14% boost.
Trump’s budget projects increases that would top out at $28.6 billion in 2023, the year before the planned landing. NASA would get $28.1 billion in 2024 and $26.3 billion in 2025.
In the Apollo program, funding also ramped for the first several years, topping out at $5.3 billion in 1965 (more than $43 billion in 2020 dollars), before tapering off ahead of the 1969 moon landing. Today’s proposed increases are less dramatic than in the Apollo era, largely because much of the technology that got NASA to the moon still hadn’t been invented.
Compared to 1960, the NASA budget ballooned year-over-year by 84% in 1961, then 89% in 1962 and another 101% in 1963. By the mid-1960s, NASA budget took up more than 4% of the total budget. Today, it makes up less than half of 1 percent.
And financing is important. Prior administrations have called for a moon landing, but none have delivered the dollars needed to achieve it. It’s been only 10 months since Vice President Mike Pence announced the administration’s new fast-tracked timeline of getting humans on the lunar surface by 2024, instead of 2028 as originally planned. The ultimate goal is to test out technologies that would get humans on the surface of Mars.
To achieve it, the budget also calls for cuts to programs NASA has previously tried to defund but Congress has saved. A STEM outreach program popular in Congress that got $120 million in 2020 would get nothing in 2021 and beyond, according to Trump’s proposal. Experts say it’s unlikely that cut will pass Congress.
Other cuts would go to two Earth science missions including PACE, which just secured SpaceX as its launch provider, and two infrared missions such as WFIRST, a program to construct an infrared space observatory that has been on the chopping block before.
Instead, Trump calls for fully funding Orion, the astronaut capsule Lockheed Martin is developing for the moon landing, with $1.4 billion. About $2.3 billion would go to SLS, Boeing’s troubled rocket that is years behind schedule. Perhaps realizing those challenges, the Trump budget calls for using a commercial rocket for the Europa Clipper mission to Jupiter’s moon instead of SLS, saving an estimated $1.5 billion.
The current NASA plan would see SLS launching a test flight in 2021, followed by a test with crew onboard on a lunar flyby moon by 2022 Artemis 3, in 2024, would be the lunar landing. The Trump administration also requests $739.3 million to continue funding the Gateway, a mini-space station that will orbit the moon and serve as a jumping off point for missions to the surface.
The entire program is going to come under the intense scrutiny of the Democrat-controlled House, in particular. The House is currently considering a bill introduced in the Science, Space, and Technology committee that would direct NASA to perform its lunar landing in 2028, not 2024, and redirect much of the focus on Mars, not the moon.
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