NASA Funding Would Include Money for Return Trip to Moon

NASA would get $23.3 billion for its fiscal year 2021 budget, which was approved as part of a sweeping end-of-year bill passed after legislators hammered out their differences for $900 billion for COVID-19 relief.

NASA JPL
Shutterstock/Christopher Halloran
(TNS) — NASA would receive $23.3 billion for its fiscal year 2021 budget, which was approved late Monday as part of a sweeping end-of-year bill passed after legislators hammered out their differences for $900 billion for COVID-19 relief.

Fiscal year 2021 began Oct. 1 and ends Sept. 30. NASA's funding is $642.3 million more than what was enacted in the prior year, but it fell short of the $25.2 billion requested by President  Donald Trump's  Administration. The bill containing NASA's budget still needs to be signed by Trump, who on Tuesday night called for significant changes to the relief package.

"NASA is grateful for the strong bipartisan support for the Artemis program, and for NASA's science, aeronautics and space technology programs," the agency said in a statement. "We're continuing our work toward a sustainable exploration program that lasts a generation."

Brendan Curry
, chief of Washington operations for the Planetary Society, a nonprofit that seeks to get more people engaged with space, had been hoping for a bit more funding but similarly praised the bipartisan support for NASA.

"All things considered, especially within this environment, the agency is going to be OK," Curry said.

According to Tweets from his colleague  Casey Dreier , senior space policy adviser for the Planetary Society, the NASA budget includes $1.4 billion for the Orion spacecraft and $2.6 billion for the Space Launch System rocket. These are being built to carry astronauts to the moon through NASA's Artemis program.

It also has $850 million for the Human Landing Systems that would lower astronauts to the lunar surface. Trump had requested $3.4 billion to ensure NASA stayed on track to return to the moon in 2024, a timeline that many believe is increasingly unlikely.

Curry said that $850 million would be sufficient to keep the program moving forward while Congress, NASA and the new president work out pending concerns and questions.

Overall, the funding allocated to NASA should keep operations stable in Houston, said  Bob Mitchell , president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership.

"It's going to maintain stability and maintain our employment," Mitchell said.

On the science side, the budget included $7.3 billion for projects, including the James Webb Space Telescope ($414.7 million) and returning rock and dirt samples from Mars ($263.5 million).

The Mars Perseverance rover is set to land on the Red Planet in February. The rover, in its quest for signs of ancient life, will collect rock and soil samples and leave them in caches on the planet's surface. Perseverance will stay on Mars, but a future mission is being planned to collect and return the samples to Earth, no sooner than 2031.

Having the mission to return samples from Mars explicitly in the budget allows NASA to formally approve the program and move into "Phase A," said  Scott Hubbard , former director of NASA's Ames Research Center and the agency's first Mars Program Director. During Phase A, the program will mature technologies and make design decisions, as well as assess industry partnerships. NASA approved the mission to move into Phase A earlier this month, according to a news release.

"This budgetary action is a huge step forward for exploring the Red Planet," Hubbard said in an email, "and most importantly understanding whether life may have emerged when Mars was habitable 3.6 billion years ago."

Curry said the Planetary Society would have liked NASA to receive $200 million for planetary defense. Congress allocated $156.4 million.

The NASA Authorization Act of 2005 required the agency to detect, track, catalog and characterize near- Earth objects — asteroids or comets that can pass within 30 million miles of Earth's orbit — equal to or greater than 140 meters (459 feet) in size. The goal was to catalog 90 percent of these objects by 2020.

In July,  Lindley Johnson , NASA's Planetary Defense Officer, told the Chronicle that NASA had identified roughly 9,200 near- Earth asteroids that are 140 meters or larger. That's just over a third of what its modeling suggests are out there of these types of asteroids.

Since Congress has asked NASA to address these near- Earth objects, Curry said NASA should get more funding.

And while some feared that spending on COVID-19 relief would lessen the appetite for spending on space, the agency seems to have been unaffected in this budget.

Next year, Curry said federal, state and local governments are aware that many expenditures will be reassessed and reexamined if their budgets have to be balanced. But for now, NASA provides jobs and some much-needed morale.

"The exploration of space is a very forward-looking, futuristic, optimistic endeavor," he said. "I think people need to see there are things to look forward to. Exciting things we can do as humans together."

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