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NASA budget ups ante to push for ‘humans to walk on Mars by 2040′

Mars (Madhav fallusion/WikiCommons)

The first moon mission under the Artemis program has yet to launch, but NASA is refocusing its long-term vision to embrace sending humans to Mars.

“We’re going to learn to live and work in a hostile environment then it’s onto Mars in the late 2030s,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said at Kennedy Space Center on Monday during his State of NASA speech. “President Biden’s $26 billion proposed budget for NASA will begin to make this happen.”

NASA’s overall budget request for the 2023 fiscal year, which begins in October 2022, increases funding across all of its mission directorates including $7.6 billion for Artemis, $8 billion for more than 100 space science missions and $2.9 billion to address climate change. The total is 8% higher than the FY 22 budget of more than $24 billion that was only just signed into law by President Biden this month 10 months after the original request.

The Artemis budget continues to be among the biggest components under a new NASA mission statement: “Exploring the secrets of the universe for the benefit of all.”

The budget now breaks Artemis down as part of its Deep Space Exploration Systems agenda. It includes an ask of nearly $4.7 billion for more Orion capsules and Space Launch System rockets coupled with Exploration Ground Systems based at Kennedy Space Center to launch the missions.

Artemis I is at KSC now set for a wet dress rehearsal at Launch Pad 39-B this weekend and a final launch for its uncrewed flight to the moon likely no earlier than June, Nelson said. Artemis II will be a crewed flight two years later that will orbit, but not land on the moon. Artemis III is targeting 2025, but depends on SpaceX finishing a version of its Starship, which last year was awarded a fixed-price contract with a bid of $2.9 billion for the first Human Landing System.

That sole award for what will mark humans’ first return to the moon since 1972 did not sit well with many in Congress, and the new budget seeks to address the need for competition to SpaceX setting aside nearly $1.5 billion for the HLS program this year, more than $300 million than what Congress approved for FY 2022. That number is projected by NASA to increase in 2024 to more than $1.8 billion in 2025 and more than $2 billion each year through 2028.

“We expect to land about once a year for more than a decade,” Nelson said.

A $780 million ask for the Gateway lunar orbiting space station is also nearly $100 million more than 2022. NASA’s new HLS contract requires future lunar landers to be compatible with Gateway for Artemis IV missions and beyond, now on NASA’s long-term schedule no earlier than 2027.

Two new subsections for the deep space budget have their eyes on Mars. More than $48 million is earmarked for Human Exploration Requirements & Architecture, which will focus on building out a lunar base, while another $161 million is requested for Mars Campaign Development, with NASA planners looking beyond the lunar horizon.

“For deep space exploration, our goal is to apply what we’ve learned living and operating on the moon and continue then out into the solar system. Our plan is for humans to walk on Mars by 2040,” Nelson said.

That goal doesn’t discount continued budgeted plans for existing robotic Martian and lunar missions including the $97 million earmarked for the VIPER rover headed to the moon’s south pole in 2023 to hunt for water, and $822 million more for the long-term Mars sample return mission to bring back to Earth some Martian soil.

“We know rovers are critical components,” Nelson said. “But when you get down to it you got to put a human in the loop. They are essential for exploration.”

With its eyes on the moon and Mars, NASA looks to increase its funding for commercial companies’ support of low-Earth orbit initiatives including the eventual retirement of the International Space Station.

Continued crew rotation missions with commercial partners SpaceX and potentially Boeing by the end of the year will be funded with $117 million, less than previous years, although cargo remains north of $1.6 billion. Continued operations on board the ISS continue to hover around $1.3 billion.

Looking down the line though, this year’s ask $224 million for commercial LEO development is up from $102 million in 2022. NASA has engaged with three groups to develop commercial space stations beyond 2030 including Axiom Space, which aims to send its first commercial mission to the ISS in April, and launch its own habitable space on board the ISS by 2024.

“It’s critical to leverage the speed and innovation of the commercial sector,” Nelson said.


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