House and Senate proposals for NASA’s fiscal year 2022 science budget mostly track the administration’s request, providing particularly significant funding increases for the Planetary Science and Earth Science Divisions. Appropriators have sent mixed signals about the fate of the airborne SOFIA telescope, which NASA has proposed to terminate.
In their fiscal year 2022 spending legislation, congressional appropriators have hewed closely to the Biden administration’s request for NASA, proposing to increase the agency’s annual topline from $23.3 billion to about $25 billion.
The appropriators are in near-agreement with the administration’s proposal to increase the budget for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate from $7.30 billion to $7.93 billion, with the House providing about $40 million more than that and the Senate $30 million less. The Planetary Science and Earth Science Divisions are in line for particularly significant increases under both proposals. Meanwhile, there remains some doubt over the fate of the SOFIA airborne telescope, as House appropriators have rejected the administration’s proposal to terminate it but their Senate counterparts have not ruled it out.
The House and Senate Appropriations Committees have detailed their spending proposals in explanatory reports accompanying their respective bills. Summary figures are available in FYI’s Federal Science Budget Tracker.
The House proposes to increase funding for the Planetary Science Division from $2.70 billion to $3.23 billion and the Senate proposes $3.16 billion, straddling the administration’s $3.20 billion request. The amounts are roughly double where the division’s topline stood as recently as fiscal year 2016.
Mars Sample Return. The division’s budget increase would fund accelerated work on the Mars Sample Return mission, a joint effort with the European Space Agency that will use multiple vehicles to retrieve surface samples currently being cached by the Perseverance rover. The Senate proposes to ramp up the mission’s budget from $246 million to $653 million, matching the request, while the House proposes $688 million. Both proposals note the mission was the highest-priority recommendation in the last National Academies decadal survey for planetary science and direct NASA to target a launch window in 2026, though an independent review of the project has suggested aiming for the following launch window in 2028.
Europa Clipper. The House proposal matches the request to ramp up funding for the Europa Clipper mission from $404 million to $472 million. House appropriators reiterate their support for NASA’s use of a commercial rocket to meet a launch window in October 2024 that will allow the spacecraft to begin undertaking dozens of flybys of Europa, an icy moon of Jupiter, in 2030.
Dragonfly. The House proposal supports the request to increase the New Frontiers program budget by 70% to $272 million, and both proposals match the $201 million requested within that budget for the Dragonfly rotorcraft mission to Saturn’s moon Titan.
Lunar science. The House and Senate both meet the administration’s request to increase funding for lunar science missions from $444 million to $497 million. The lunar science program is anticipating the launch of its first commercially operated landers in 2022, with other missions following regularly thereafter.
Planetary defense. The House and Senate match the $197 million requested for efforts to detect and potentially deflect asteroids that pose a risk of striking the Earth, a 26% increase over the current budget. The House directs NASA to spend at least the $143 million requested for development of the Near-Earth Object Surveyor, a space-based telescope optimized to detect asteroids. Senate appropriators direct NASA to aim to launch that mission in 2025, while House appropriators endorse NASA’s plan to launch in early 2026.
The Senate matches the administration’s request for $1.40 billion for the Astrophysics Division, exclusive of the James Webb Space Telescope’s budget, which is funded from a separate account. The House would provide almost $1.45 billion, a $90 million increase over the current budget.
SOFIA. The House proposes level funding of $85 million for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, which the administration proposes to terminate on account of its relatively low scientific output and high operating expenses. The House proposal retorts that SOFIA can perform certain observations that other available facilities cannot. The Senate proposal does not specify funding for SOFIA one way or the other, though it otherwise did follow the administration’s lead in setting and allocating the division’s budget. By contrast, the House funds SOFIA partly through a higher topline and partly by proposing lesser amounts for other programs.
Roman Telescope. The House and Senate both provide the $502 million requested for the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope. Construction of the telescope was disrupted by the pandemic and NASA has added $382 million to its total price tag and pushed its back-end target launch date from October 2026 to May 2027. Senate appropriators still state the mission’s development should adhere to a $3.2 billion cost cap, but that figure does not account for pandemic-related costs or the cost of a coronagraph technology demonstration that will be included on the telescope. NASA indicates it now anticipates that development of the telescope and coronagraph and the first five years of mission operations will together cost $4.3 billion.
Webb Telescope. Both the House and Senate provide the requested $175 million for the James Webb Space Telescope, a decline from its current annual budget of $415 million that stems from its expected launch in December. The mission’s total lifecycle cost will be about $10 billion.
Explorer missions. The Senate would at least match the request of $300 million for the Explorer program, which funds small-budget missions through a competitive selection process. The House proposes $278 million, which would still be a $73 million increase over the current budget.
The House proposes increasing the Heliophysics Division’s budget from $751 million to $773 million, short of the $797 million requested, while the Senate proposes $826 million.
Solar probes. Much of the prospective topline increase will go to the Solar Terrestrial Probes program, with the House and Senate both meeting the administration’s request to increase its budget from $132 million to $253 million. The bulk of the additional funding is for ramping up the budget of the Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe, a spacecraft NASA is aiming to launch by 2025 that will study how solar winds interact with the winds of other stars.
Magnetospheric Multiscale mission. Whereas the House largely accepts the administration’s request to cut the operating budget of the Magnetospheric Multiscale mission by 20% to $21 million, the Senate directs it be funded at no less than its current $26 million level. The mission studies electromagnetic phenomena in the Earth’s upper atmosphere and the Senate appropriators explain they will not entertain cuts until the mission completes its “phase two” objective of studying magnetic field reconnection events on the Earth’s night side.
New missions. Without specifying particular funding levels, Senate appropriators express support for the Geospace Dynamics Constellation while House appropriators do the same for the Dynamical Neutral Atmosphere-Ionosphere Coupling (DYNAMIC) mission. Both missions are currently in the early stages of development and will study the Earth’s upper atmosphere.
Research. The Senate partly accepts the administration’s proposal to decrease funding for the Heliophysics Research account, cutting it from $281 million to $236 million rather than the requested $211 million. The additional money is directed toward maintaining level funding for research and analysis, potentially leaving in place proposed cuts to other activities funded by the account such as sounding rockets and the division’s Guest Investigator program.
Space weather R&D. The Senate specifies that NASA should fund the Space Weather Science Applications program at no less than its current $25 million level, turning back the administration’s proposal for a cut to $10 million. The appropriators specify that $1 million is for setting up a “center-based mechanism to support multidisciplinary space weather research, advance new capabilities, and foster collaboration among university, government, and industry participants aimed at improving research-to-operations and operations-to-research.”
Technology program. The House and Senate both support the administration’s creation of a Heliophysics Technology program with an anticipated budget of $28 million, $9 million more than the current budgets of activities being consolidated into it. Part of the additional funding will go to setting up an “incubator program” that will mature technologies in ground-based facilities and through flight demonstrations.
The House proposal meets the request to add $250 million to the Earth Science Division’s current $2 billion budget, while the Senate proposes a $230 million increase.
Earth System Observatory. The House appropriators endorse the request to ramp up funding for future Earth Science missions from $55 million to $138 million in order to accelerate and better coordinate work responding to the last Earth science decadal survey. The Senate proposes allocating at least $150 million.
Venture-class missions. The Senate proposal meets the administration’s request to increase funding from $264 million to $327 million for the Venture program, which funds small-budget projects through a competitive selection process. NASA reported that two projects currently under development recently experienced significant cost growth: the Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation (EMIT) instrument and the Geostationary Carbon Observatory (GEOCarb). The agency expects the program’s budget to decrease to $225 million next year.
Robotically assembled capabilities. The Senate appropriators “encourage” NASA to develop a “prototype on-orbit robotically assembled Earth Science Platform designed to address critical gaps in NASA’s climate, weather, and ecosystem monitoring.” They further state NASA should develop a “space-based capability for autonomous and simultaneous operation of multiple modular Earth remote-sensing instruments that utilizes robotic assembly and on-orbit structure manufacturing technologies” that stem from NASA’s OSAM-2 technology demonstration mission.
OSAM-1 and 2. The House and Senate match the administration’s request for continued funding of $227 million for NASA’s first On-Orbit Servicing, Assembly, and Manufacturing (OSAM) mission, which comprises a robotic spacecraft that will aim to refuel the Landsat 7 satellite and assemble a communications antenna. House appropriators further specify that NASA should provide no less than the requested level of $16 million for OSAM-2, also known as Archinaut, which will 3D-print 10-meter beams in space that will unfurl and support the spacecraft’s solar arrays. In addition, the appropriators “urge” NASA to consider an OSAM-3 mission, citing a potential benefit to Earth science missions.
Nuclear power and propulsion. The Biden administration is seeking to zero out funding for a program supporting R&D on propulsion methods that employ nuclear fission. However, the House and Senate both propose continued funding of $110 million for nuclear thermal propulsion systems, which could be used to propel spacecraft along high-speed trajectories, such as on a crewed mission to Mars. The House appropriators also direct NASA to explore whether moving its nuclear fission efforts from its technology development directorate into its human exploration directorate would expedite progress on the technology.
The House appropriators further direct NASA to allocate at least $10 million to “begin a systemic approach to nuclear electric propulsion,” citing recommendations from a National Academies report released earlier this year on nuclear space propulsion methods. Finally, they direct NASA to submit a long-term plan for a fission surface power program in its next budget request. In fiscal year 2022, NASA is planning to award up to three industry contracts for preliminary design work for a 10-kilowatt fission power system that could be used on the Moon or another planetary surface.
Artemis. Earlier this year, NASA awarded a $2.9 billion contract to the company SpaceX for the development and operation of a crewed lunar lander, and accordingly is requesting almost $1.20 billion for the project in fiscal year 2022. The agency’s decision followed Congress’ appropriation of $928 million in the current fiscal year for the lander program, which was far short of what the Trump administration was seeking to move ahead rapidly with two landers. However, the company Blue Origin, which leads a competing lander development team, has since offered to cover up to $2 billion in costs through fiscal year 2023 and is also suing NASA over how it handled the contract award.
The House proposal includes about $1.35 billion for the lander program and, citing the ongoing challenge to the SpaceX contract, broadly urges “NASA to bolster competition in lander development and production.” The Senate proposal includes about $1.3 billion. Senate appropriators object to NASA’s “rhetoric of blaming Congress” for providing insufficient funding for two landers and state that they “believed, in providing resources for fiscal year 2021, that the resources would support early work for two teams.” They explicitly direct NASA to move ahead with “no fewer than two” lander projects and add that they expect “real investments in development rather than additional studies.”
Biological and Physical Sciences. The Senate meets the request to increase funding for the BPS Division from $79 million to $109 million, while the House proposes $90 million. The division, which funds science projects aboard the International Space Station and other platforms, was recently moved into the Science Mission Directorate.
STEM outreach. The House and Senate both match the administration’s request to increase funding for NASA’s Office of STEM Engagement from $127 million to $147 million. House appropriators encourage the office to work with NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate to “create opportunities for students in K–12 to fly payloads onboard commercial suborbital vehicles and to ensure that these opportunities focus on a wide demographic of students, especially those in underrepresented areas.” Senate appropriators “encourage NASA’s Minority University Research and Education Project to support programs that connect science, Indigenous culture, and community at minority-serving higher education institutions,” stating such efforts should “integrate Indigenous practices in science through educational programs for K–12 students and college students and the general public.”
The Senate proposal also matches the administration’s request to increase the Science Mission Directorate’s education budget by $10 million to $56 million. The request indicated that the additional funding would support efforts to “combat social inequities” through “competitive selections, and augmented collaborations for rural, Indigenous, and other underserved areas; citizen science projects; and plans to use lessons-learned from past celestial and other milestone events to engage underserved communities.”
FYI is an editorially independent science policy news service from the American Institute of Physics. If you are interested in republishing this content, please contact [email protected].