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NASA awaits approval of $24bn 2022 budget

A billion here, a billion there, after a while it starts adding up to real money

NASA's request for $24bn in funding for its 2022 fiscal year will be considered by US lawmakers this month.

This comes at an awkward time for the space agency: it was just recently criticized for underestimating the cost of Artemis – its mission to set foot again on the Moon – and the future of the International Space Station looks uncertain due to rocky relations with Russia.

The budget is part of the proposed Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act [PDF, page 126] working its way through Congress. If passed as expected, NASA will bag $24,041,300,000, just $760,200,000 shy of what it requested [PDF], and a little more than the $23.3bn it got last year.

A big chunk of the cash for 2022, some $7.6bn, will go toward NASA's science projects to monitor Earth ($2bn), and study the Sun ($778m), the rest of the Solar System ($3.1bn) and beyond ($1.4bn), with $83m for biological sciences. NASA's fiscal year runs October 1 through September 30.

The budget will have to be spread across several missions, ranging from keeping its Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter going, to figuring out how to obtain the Mars samples collected by the Perseverance rover, to building the Dragonfly rotorcraft to explore Saturn's moon Titan. Separately, the James Webb Space Telescope and the upcoming Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope will get $175m and $502m respectively.

The next biggest chunk, $6.8bn, is left for exploration, where NASA's most ambitious plans lie. It has grand plans to build the next-generation rocket and spacecraft to take humans to the Moon and Mars. These projects, however, have suffered multiple setbacks with failures and delays.

NASA today relies on SpaceX's Falcon 9 rockets to get its astronauts and gear to the ISS. Flight tests of NASA's own Space Launch System haven't gone smoothly; the rockets have repeatedly failed during launch. Still, Congress may be willing to splash another $2.6bn on it.

NASA's goal of sending the first woman and next man to the Moon under its Artemis program is unlikely to meet its initial 2024 deadline. A 2021 report by government auditors said the space agency wasn't able to lay out a concrete schedule and spending plan since it was still stuck in the early stages of development. 

NASA Inspector General Paul Martin recently estimated that it would cost $4.1bn per launch for the first four missions to the Moon, and called it "unsustainable" during a House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics hearing. Multiple components of the program are still under development, such as the Orion capsule, which has $1.4bn earmarked for it in 2022.

The other interesting part of the budget is a little over $1bn for "commercial LEO development" for space stations. The ISS is old, and space agencies around the world are beginning to think more seriously about replacing it. As an international hub, it is operated and maintained by NASA, ESA, Russia's Roscosmos, Japan's JAXA, and Canada's CSA.

As Russia faces harsh economic sanctions for invading Ukraine, leaders at Roscosmos said they're thinking about pulling out from the ISS after 2024. Now is a good time as any to look to start preparing for that scenario. ®

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