NASA’s moon program shines as one bright spot in White House science spending plan

Blue Moon stretch lander
A stretch version of the Blue Moon lander can accommodate astronauts and an ascent vehicle. (Blue Origin Illustration)

While most discretionary spending is getting the axe in the White House’s newly released budget request, NASA and its Artemis program to put astronauts on the moon by as early as 2024 would receive a big boost.

For fiscal year 2021, which starts in October, NASA would be in for a 12% increase over current-year levels, with a budget of $25.2 billion.

Nearly half of that money, $12.3 billion, would go toward programs focusing on Artemis and the follow-up push toward a human landing on Mars in the 2030s.

And more than $3.3 billion of that figure would be set aside for the development of human lunar lander systems. That’s likely to be good news for the likes of Jeff Bezos and his Blue Origin space venture, which is leading a lunar lander team that also includes Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Draper.

The money would support going forward with at least two commercial concepts for lunar landers. In addition to Blue Origin’s team, Boeing and a partnership involving Dynetics and Sierra Nevada Corp. are known to be in the running. SpaceX’s Starship seems likely to be under consideration as well. Contracts for further development will be announced in the coming months, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine said.

The budget also supports continued development of NASA’s heavy-lift Space Launch System ($2.3 billion) and Orion deep-space capsule ($1.4 billion), which are key pillars of NASA’s current architecture for moon missions. However, the White House wants to defer funding for a future upgrade of the SLS, known as Block 1B, so that the program can concentrate on getting the initial Block 1 rockets flying.

Additional money would be been set aside for developing next-generation spacesuits, a surface habitat and rovers, and for funding commercial payload delivery services to the moon. Another $430 million has been earmarked for a Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative that would support technology development for operations on the moon and eventually on Mars, including research grants and X Prize-style competitions.

Robotic Mars exploration, including preparations for missions aimed at bringing samples back to Earth from Mars and mapping deposits of water ice near the Martian surface, would get $529 million.

White House proposes, Congress disposes

There are lots of “woulds” in the preceding paragraphs because it’ll be up to Congress to turn the White House’s funding requests into the actual spending bills. Not everything in the total $4.8 trillion budget proposal is likely to turn out the way the White House expects. Even though space policy tends to be set on a more bipartisan basis than other policy areas (for example, building the wall), there are still likely to be substantial tweaks.

For example, the Trump administration calls for cutbacks in spending on Earth science and education, and would zero out funding for the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope and the SOFIA airborne telescope. Congress hasn’t gone along with such cutbacks in the past, and we’re likely to see resistance this year as well.

In a statement, Sen. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., who chairs the appropriations committee in charge of funding NASA, said he was disappointed to see the White House proposing cuts to NASA’s education program. He said it was “encouraging to see a proposed budget that supports returning American astronauts to the moon,” but he was “eager to receive sufficient budget details to match our ambitious human exploration goals.”

The timetable for NASA’s Artemis moon plan could conceivably come in for adjustment. Back in November, a quartet of senators including Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., introduced a NASA authorization bill that called for continuing federal support of the International Space Station through 2030 and setting a 2028 goal for lunar exploration. The House’s version of the authorization bill also focuses on 2028, though there’s nothing in the bill that would preclude a 2024 moon landing.

Research funding cuts criticized

Looking more broadly at research and development funding, the White House says it aims to spend $142.2 billion on RD. Compared with fiscal 2020, that would represent a 6% increase for the budget request but a 10% percent decrease for actual estimated spending.

The top priorities would be “industries of the future” such as artificial intelligence, quantum computing, advanced manufacturing, biotech and advanced communications such as 5G networking. For example, funding for AI-related grants and interdisciplinary research institutes through the National Science Foundation would be increased by 70% over the current-year budget, to more than $850 million. The NSF research budget for quantum information science would be doubled to $210 million.

The outlook is dimmer for areas of science and technology less favored by the Trump administration. For example, the Environmental Protection Agency’s budget would be cut by 26%. The proposal calls for a 7% reduction in spending by the National Institutes of Health, to a total of $38 billion for fiscal 2021. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention would see its overall budget cut by 9%. Officials say funds for dealing with the coronavirus outbreak would be preserved, however.

Although research related to AI and quantum computing would get a boost, the NSF’s total budget would shrink about 7%, to a total of $7.7 billion.

One of the first reactions from the research community came from Benjamin Korb, public affairs director of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

“Today’s budget request from the White House is just another in a series of proposals to cut federal support for the scientific research and innovation — funding that enables the discoveries and advances that keep Americans safe and healthy and keep the nation in a position of global leadership.

“By requesting $42 billion in cuts to nondefense spending, this proposal rejects Congress’ bipartisan budget agreement for fiscal years 2020 and 2021, which President Donald Trump himself signed into law last year.”

Later in the day, the American Association for the Advancement of Science issued a statement from its CEO, Sudip Parikh:

“The administration’s proposed budget cuts to research risk slowing our nation’s science just when it is reaping benefits for all Americans in the forms of better health, a stronger economy, a more sustainable environment, a safer world, and awe-inspiring understanding. The proposed cuts risk slowing our nation’s scientific enterprise when other nations, including China, are increasing their investments to seize these benefits.

“In his recent State of the Union address, President Trump recognized the important history of our nation in advancing science and medicine to ‘new heights.’ Unfortunately, the administration’s proposed budget does not match the president’s words. We urge the U.S. Congress to act in the public’s best interest and work in a bipartisan fashion to fund broad investment in research.”

The federal government’s science policy is sure to be a discussion topic when the AAAS conducts its annual meeting in Seattle this week. One of the scheduled speakers is White House science adviser Kelvin Droegemeier. Stay tuned for GeekWire’s coverage of the AAAS meeting.

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