But on Monday the White House proposed an ambitious plan that would give the space agency significant spending boosts over several years, stretching spending from about $19 billion when President Trump came into office to $28.6 billion by fiscal 2023.
NASA officials also for the first time provided a total cost for the program to land astronauts on the moon, known as Artemis, placing it at $35 billion through 2024. Although the White House’s goal still faces many significant hurdles — in navigating both the vacuum of space and the equally treacherous halls of Congress — the pressure is on NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, who said during a speech Monday, “It is up to us to deliver.”
Space exploration has been a major priority for the Trump administration, which reconstituted the National Space Council and directed NASA to dramatically speed up its moon program. And it shows in its budget proposal, which Bridenstine called “one of the strongest budgets in NASA history.”
The spending plan for next year calls for a total budget of $25.2 billion, a nearly $3 billion increase over the current $22.6 billion. The increase is the first step toward meeting the White House mandate to return humans to the lunar surface by 2024 as part of the Artemis program. The White House plans to continue the increases through fiscal 2023.
One of the next big steps is awarding the contract for a lunar lander system, which is expected in the coming months. Several companies are vying for the contract, including Boeing, SpaceX and a team led by Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin that includes Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
For next year, the White House plans include $3.4 billion for a lunar lander system — “the first time we’ve had direct funding for a human landing system since Apollo,” Bridenstine said.
It also includes nearly $2.3 billion for the Space Launch System rocket, being built in large part by Boeing and Aerojet Rocketdyne, and $1.4 billion for the Lockheed Martin-built Orion crew capsule. NASA plans to use those vehicles to get astronauts to the moon.
The SLS rocket has suffered several years of costly setbacks and delays. But Monday, Bridenstine said it had made significant progress and called it “America’s rocket” that will serve as the “foundation of our 21st-century space exploration.”
Still, the budget request shows just how expensive the rocket is. The spending plan calls for NASA to look at other commercially available rockets to launch a mission as early as 2024 to explore Jupiter’s moon Europa. Doing so would save the agency “over $1.5 billion compared to using an SLS rocket,” the budget request says.
If all goes according to plan, NASA’s Artemis program calls for the first launch of the SLS rocket with the Orion capsule for a mission around the moon without crews in 2021. The following year, astronauts would be on board Orion to orbit the moon, with the goal of landing on the surface by 2024.
Instead of going straight to the surface, however, the astronauts would first stop at an outpost known as the Gateway in orbit around the moon. They would then fly to and from the lunar surface in the landing vehicles. The budget would allocate more than $700 million for activities on the surface of the moon, such as mining, which would allow astronauts to “live off the land.”
The program, however, has met stiff resistance in Congress, especially in the Democratic-controlled House. Recently, the House Science subcommittee on space and aeronautics voted out a bill that directs NASA to land on the moon by 2028, not 2024, and spend most of its energy and resources on a mission to put astronauts in orbit around Mars by 2033.
Members of Congress are likely to be dismissive of provisions in the White House budget that would cut funding for the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), a key astrophysics mission for NASA. In the past, the White House has tried to defund the program, only to be reversed by Congress.
The White House plan would also cut funding for NASA’s Office of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) Engagement.
Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), the chairman of the Senate appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, said it was “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.” He added that he was “disappointed the budget would cut STEM education, which plays a vital role in making certain we have the talent to achieve our mission.”