The Biden administration seeks a 9% funding increase for NASA science programs in fiscal year 2022, which would support accelerated work on the Mars Sample Return mission and planned Earth science satellites, among other priorities.
In its fiscal year 2022 budget request, the Biden administration is proposing to increase NASA’s budget by 7% to $24.8 billion. Within that amount, the budget for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate would increase 9% to $7.9 billion.
NASA’s Artemis lunar exploration program continues to be the most pressing matter facing the agency. While the administration has made clear it intends to move ahead with Artemis, it is requesting far less funding for it than the Trump administration did and the agency has not yet made clear how that will affect its plans.
Within the science directorate, the administration requests steady funding for most ongoing activities, some of which have suffered delays and cost increases due to pandemic-related disruptions. The request would also accelerate work on certain activities, most notably the Mars Sample Return mission and planned Earth science satellites. However, the administration repeats last year’s proposal to terminate the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA).
Summary figures from the request are available in FYI’s Federal Science Budget Tracker. Highlights are summarized below.
The Artemis program’s status has been up in the air since Congress funded only a fraction of NASA’s request for a crewed lunar lander in the current fiscal year. In April, NASA chose to move forward with the program by awarding a single $2.9 billion contract to the company SpaceX, and has now requested a lander budget only incrementally higher than its current one. The two other competing bidders have protested the award, with at least one arguing the revised funding profile departs from the terms of NASA’s solicitation. Meanwhile, some members of Congress have begun pressing to fund a second lander, while NASA Administrator Bill Nelson has suggested that lawmakers might provide the needed money through the infrastructure spending bill they are considering.
In any case, a recent report from NASA’s Office of Inspector General has flagged a series of risks to the timely progress of Artemis and deems it “highly unlikely” that NASA can achieve the Trump administration’s goal of conducting a crewed landing in 2024. Pressed at a recent hearing by House Science Committee Chair Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) on when an updated plan will be released, Nelson stated that NASA will provide more information shortly after the Government Accountability Office rules on the lander contract protest, which is expected by Aug. 4.
Reflecting the administration’s emphasis on addressing climate change, the Earth Science Division budget would rise 13% to $2.25 billion under the request. In addition, the annual budgets for many key missions are set to ramp down, making more funding available for increases in areas such as research and analysis, data systems, and early work on future missions.
Earth System Observatory. The administration proposes to increase the budget for missions that respond to the 2017 Earth science decadal survey from $55 million to $138 million, with plans to ramp up to nearly $700 million by fiscal year 2026. In May, NASA bundled these missions into a unified program called the Earth System Observatory, with four missions targeted for launch between fiscal years 2027 and 2030. The first mission will observe changes in mass distribution on the Earth’s surface. The second will monitor biological and geological changes. From different orbits, the third and fourth will observe atmospheric aerosols, clouds, convection, and precipitation.
Earth System Explorers. In accord with a recommendation in the decadal survey, NASA requests $6.6 million to initiate a new medium-scale mission class focused on seven “targeted observables” the survey prioritized: greenhouse gases, ozone and trace gases, ice elevation, snow depth, atmospheric winds, ocean surface winds, and terrestrial ecosystem structure. NASA anticipates issuing the program’s first solicitation for instrument and mission proposals during its first year and ramping up its annual budget to $150 million by fiscal year 2026.
NISAR. NASA’s estimated share of the total cost of the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar satellite has increased by $113 million to $774 million and the mission’s launch readiness date has been pushed back one year to September 2023. The agency explains the changes are due to pandemic disruptions and delays in the delivery of a major instrument. The mission is a partnership with the Indian Space Research Organisation and NASA considers it to be a “pathfinder” that will offer experience with cutting-edge surface-measuring capabilities ahead of the first Earth System Observatory mission. NASA’s annual budget for NISAR is set to remain about even at $73 million.
SWOT. NASA reports that the cost of the Surface Water Ocean Topography satellite has increased by $68 million to $639 million and that it will miss its April 2022 launch readiness date by at least six months, due partly to pandemic disruptions and partly to “technical challenges and unexpected integration and test complexities.” SWOT’s annual budget is set to ramp down from $64 million to $33 million.
PACE. Due to pandemic disruptions, NASA has raised its cost estimate for the Plankton, Aerosols, Clouds, ocean Ecosystem satellite by $74 million to $632 million and is planning to revise its launch readiness date this summer. The mission’s annual budget has just passed the peak of its funding profile and is set to ramp down from $145 million to $119 million.
GEOCarb. NASA has raised its cost estimate for the Geostationary Carbon Observatory instrument by $117 million and delayed its launch date by 14 months. The instrument’s cost had been capped at $173 million and was targeted for launch in January 2022, but NASA reports its progress has been plagued by the pandemic, wildfires near its development facility in California, the loss of its expected satellite hosting option, and technical challenges.
Landsat 9. The Landsat 9 satellite is scheduled for launch this September and will be handed over to the U.S. Geological Survey shortly thereafter. Accordingly, NASA’s contribution to its budget is set to drop from $87 million to $3 million.
Funding for the Planetary Science Division would increase 19% to $3.20 billion under the request. The division’s budget has increased rapidly in recent years and the proposed level would be roughly double what it was at as recently as fiscal year 2016.
Mars Sample Return. With the flagship Perseverance rover now safely on Mars, attention has turned to the follow-on Mars Sample Return mission, which would see its annual budget increase from $246 million to $653 million under the request. That jump would follow a recommendation made by the mission’s independent review board last year to allocate more funding to the mission early in its development to help solidify its design as rapidly as possible. The mission is unusually complex, involving multiple vehicles developed by NASA and the European Space Agency that will land on Mars, retrieve samples cached by Perseverance, launch them into Mars orbit, and transport them back to Earth. NASA and ESA are currently targeting launches in 2026, though the review board recommended the mission consider targeting a launch window in 2028 instead.
Europa Clipper. The annual budget for the flagship Europa Clipper is set to rise from $435 million to $472 million before it begins to decline ahead of a scheduled launch date in October 2024. NASA set that date earlier this year when it opted to use a commercial rocket for the mission after Congress released the agency from the obligation to use one of its own Space Launch System rockets. Launching with an SLS would have entailed an estimated $1.5 billion in additional costs and it was deemed unlikely one would have been available by the time the mission was ready to launch.
Dragonfly. The request proposes increasing the New Frontiers program budget, which funds midscale missions, from $160 million to $272 million. The increase would go primarily toward ramping up work on Dragonfly, a rotorcraft mission to Saturn’s moon Titan. Last year, NASA pushed back Dragonfly’s target launch date by a year to 2027, citing budget pressures caused in part by pandemic-related disruptions. Then in May, the agency announced it is postponing its next solicitation for New Frontiers mission proposals from 2022 to 2024, attributing the change to the pandemic and a desire to avoid competition over resources with the Dragonfly effort.
Asteroid missions. The budget for the Discovery program, which funds the division’s least expensive missions, is set to decline from $451 million to $365 million. The decrease is due primarily to the anticipated launch of the Lucy asteroid mission this October. In addition, the annual budget for Psyche, another asteroid mission, is slated to ramp down by $30 million as it approaches its scheduled launch in August 2022.
Venus missions. Within the Discovery program, funding for future missions will increase from $30 million to $54 million and is projected to grow to more than $500 million by fiscal year 2026. Much of this funding will eventually be divided between the DAVINCI+ and VERITAS missions, which were chosen for development last month and will both study Venus, with launches targeted for between 2028 and 2030. They will be NASA’s first missions to Venus since its Magellan orbiter, which launched in 1989 and concluded operations in 1994. The European Space Agency is developing a third mission to visit Venus called EnVision, which is aiming to launch in the early 2030s.
Lunar science. The request proposes to increase funding for lunar science missions from $444 million to $497 million as NASA continues to plan commercially operated robotic lander missions at a steady clip. Although the first two landers had been scheduled for later this year, a series of delays has led NASA to now plan on sending three landers in 2022 with a further three planned for 2023, including the Volatiles Investigating Polar Exploration Rover (VIPER).
Asteroid detection and deflection. Funding for planetary defense would rise from $151 million to $197 million under the request, with the increase going toward ramping up work on the Near Earth Object Surveyor, an infrared telescope designed to expedite the search for asteroids and other objects that could present a danger to Earth. NASA moved the mission into its preliminary design phase last month and is aiming for a launch in 2026. Meanwhile, funding for the Double Asteroid Redirection Test mission is set to wind down as it approaches its anticipated launch in late 2021 or early 2022. The spacecraft is expected to arrive at the Didymos double-asteroid system in fall 2022, when it will impact with the system’s smaller asteroid, allowing Earth-based observers to study the dynamical effects.
The administration proposes to increase the Astrophysics Division budget by 3% to $1.40 billion. The division is only recapturing a fraction of the $239 million that is expected to be freed up by the upcoming, long-awaited launch of the flagship James Webb Space Telescope, which is funded through a separate account. The combined budget for the division and the telescope would decline 11% under the request.
Webb Telescope. After the Webb Telescope suffered the latest in a series of cost increases in 2018, Congress agreed to provide additional funding to see it through to launch while simultaneously ramping up funding for the follow-on flagship astrophysics mission, the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope. Consequently, the total budget for astrophysics activities has been elevated the last two fiscal years. That situation is now set to end as the Webb Telescope’s annual budget ramps down from $415 million to $175 million, which is about where it is expected to remain in future years as science operations continue.
Roman Telescope. The Roman Telescope’s annual budget is poised to remain steady at $502 million as development work proceeds at full throttle. NASA set the mission’s baseline development cost at $3.2 billion in February 2020, with an additional $334 million allocated for a coronagraph demonstration project, which the request reports is on track. However, the pandemic hampered work on the telescope and a recent report from NASA’s Office of Inspector General indicated that last fall the agency expected the cost impact to be about $400 million and the launch readiness date to be pushed back six months to June 2026. NASA is planning on releasing a revised cost and schedule baseline when the project undergoes its critical design review this fall.
SOFIA. In advocating to terminate the airplane-mounted SOFIA telescope, the request repeats last year’s rationale that the facility’s comparatively low volume of scientific output makes its high annual operating cost of $85 million difficult to justify. It also notes that the Webb Telescope will boast analogous infrared observation capabilities that would “partially” mitigate SOFIA’s absence. The Obama administration also previously targeted SOFIA for termination, but Congress has been steadfast in supporting it.
Midscale mission. The request allocates $76 million to initiate planning for a “Probe” mission, provided the forthcoming National Academies astrophysics decadal survey recommends pursuing one. A Probe would be intermediate in cost between a flagship mission and the Astrophysics Division’s less-expensive Explorer-class missions. Although the division does not currently support midscale missions, doing so has long been a priority for outgoing Division Director Paul Hertz. The request anticipates funding for the mission would ramp up to nearly $500 million by fiscal year 2026, though this wedge of funding could also be used for responding to other decadal survey recommendations.
The request proposes increasing the Heliophysics Division budget by 6% to $797 million
IMAP. The annual budget for the Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe is set to rise from $66 million to $170 million, following a temporary reduction in its funding profile arising from a decision to award its launch contract using funds already appropriated. The mission, which will study the interaction of solar winds with the winds of other stars, is aiming to launch in 2025.
Geospace Dynamics Constellation. Funding for the recently initiated Geospace Dynamics Constellation mission would increase from $15 million to $23 million under the request. The mission will study coupling between the Earth’s magnetosphere and its ionosphere/thermosphere system and its annual budget is projected to ramp up to more than $170 million by fiscal year 2026.
Research. Following increases that brought the division’s research budget up to $281 million in the current fiscal year, that funding would drop to $211 million under the request, with cuts spread across various activities, including the division’s space weather, CubeSat, and Guest Investigator programs.
Technology program. The division is establishing a new Heliophysics Technology Program with a proposed budget of $28 million, a $9 million increase over the combined budgets of predecessor activities consolidated into the program. As part of the program, the division plans to establish a Heliophysics Strategic Technology Office, which will develop a “technology incubator program to advance promising technologies through maturation and demonstration, and to enable more purposeful technology infusion in future science missions.”
Biological and Physical Science
The BPS Division budget would increase by 38% to $109 million under the request, with further increases expected in future years. The division was transferred to the Science Mission Directorate from NASA’s human exploration program last year and is currently focused on supporting research activities aboard the International Space Station.
However, with the Artemis program now ramping up, the division is set to expand its horizons beyond low Earth orbit to address science to be conducted on other platforms. The request states that in fiscal year 2022 the division will also begin a “major shift in research strategy from a broad to a focused portfolio,” identifying three major research areas of interest: human physiology in deep space, quantum physics, and the complex dynamics of “soft matter.”
The administration proposes to raise the budget for the Office of STEM Engagement by $20 million to $147 million. Of the increase, $10 million would be allocated to the Minority University Research Education Program, $6 million would go to the Space Grant program, and the remaining $4 million would expand Next Gen STEM, a pilot program that develops STEM experiences for students at the K–12 level.
Separate from the STEM Engagement office, the Science Mission Directorate operates a “Science Activation” program to support complementary education and outreach activities. Its budget would increase by 22% under the request to $56 million, which NASA states would support “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.”
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