NASA requests $24.8 billion in 2022, proposes to cancel SOFIA again

WASHINGTON — NASA released its fiscal year 2022 budget request May 28, asking for $24.8 billion to support a number of new and existing science and exploration programs but also proposing once again to cancel an airborne astronomical observatory.

The detailed budget request of $24.801 billion is slightly higher than the $24.7 billion in an initial “skinny” budget request published April 9. That request included only highlights of the overall proposal, such as additional science and space technology funding. The request is more than $1.5 billion above the $23.272 billion the agency received for fiscal year 2021.

“The president’s budget request is recognition that NASA’s missions contribute to the administration’s larger goals for America,” NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a call with reporters about the budget proposal. Those goals, he said, ranged from addressing climate change to job creation.

The $7.93 billion for NASA’s science programs is the largest ever, Nelson said, eclipsing the $7.3 billion the agency received in 2021. “The Biden administration is proving that science is back,” he said. “The record funding in the science area will help NASA address the climate crisis and advance robotic missions that will pave the way for astronauts to explore the moon and Mars.”

That budget features a $250 million increase for NASA’s Earth science programs, including $137.8 million to start work on a series of missions known as the Earth System Observatory and formally announced May 24. According to the budget request, NASA expects to develop four missions to implement “designated observables” in the Earth science decadal survey, launching between fiscal years 2027 and 2030.

NASA’s planetary science program, though, would see a larger increase of $500 million to $3.2 billion in 2022. That additional funding would primarily go to a new Mars Sample Return program, with $653.2 million requested for it in the budget. It would also ramp up funding for the development of the Near Earth Object Surveyor mission, a small space telescope to search for potentially hazardous asteroids.

Unlike budget requests during the Trump administration, the fiscal year 2022 budget proposal includes funding for several science missions frequently targeted for cancellation, such as the Nancy Grace Roman Space Telescope and the PACE and CLARREO Pathfinder Earth science missions.

However, as with the 2021 budget request, NASA is proposing to cancel the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), a modified Boeing 747 that carries a 2.5-meter telescope to perform observations above much of infrared-absorbing water vapor in the lower atmosphere.

NASA said the relatively high cost to operate SOFIA, of about $85 million annually, could not be justified by the science it produced. “Dramatic improvement in SOFIA’s scientific productivity is not expected,” NASA noted in its budget document. “The nature of the program, which relies on observations using an expensive platform with expensive consumables, results in low cost efficiency compared to most observatories.”

Congress added back funding for SOFIA in the final fiscal year 2021 appropriations bill, just as it did when NASA proposed canceling the program in fiscal year 2015. NASA argued in the new budget proposal that the James Webb Space Telescope will be able to handle some of the infrared astronomy currently performed by SOFIA, and that terminating SOFIA will free up funding to begin work on a new “probe-class” astrophysics mission, if one is recommended by the upcoming decadal survey.

The fiscal year 2022 budget proposal would cancel the SOFIA airborne observatory, just as the agency attempted to do in fiscal years 2015 and 2021. Credit: NASA

Lunar landers

The budget proposes a 5% increase in exploration programs, to $6.88 billion. Funding is flat for the Orion, Space Launch System and Exploration Ground Systems programs, but research and development spending increases by more than 20% to nearly $2.4 billion.

That includes $1.195 billion for the Human Landing System (HLS) program. Nelson said at the briefing that the request is based on supporting a single “Option A” HLS award. NASA selected SpaceX for that award April 16, but work is on hold because of protests filed by the two losing bidders, Blue Origin and Dynetics.

A NASA authorization bill, currently under consideration by the Senate as part of a broader competitiveness act, would direct NASA to select a second company for an HLS award, and authorize $10.032 billion for the HLS program from fiscal years 2021 through 2025. Counting the funding NASA received in fiscal year 2021, the budget proposal projects spending $6.96 billion over the same period.

“It has been, in no uncertain terms, expressed to me by members of both the House and the Senate that they want a competition for the remaining lander contracts that will occur over the course of the decade following the first demonstration flight,” which is SpaceX’s Option A mission, he said. He didn’t elaborate on the additional funding needed to enable that should the language in the Senate bill become law, but Nelson told House appropriators May 19 that NASA would seek $5.4 billion in additional HLS funding in a separate jobs and infrastructure package.

Language in the budget proposal indicated that NASA, for now, is retaining the goal of landing humans on the moon in 2024. “The FY 2022 President’s Budget proposes funding to support the Nation’s next lunar landing goal of 2024,” the proposal states in a passage about Exploration Ground Systems.

Nelson noted that SpaceX’s Option A award calls for a demonstration landing mission with astronauts on board in 2024, but cautioned that the past record of delays could mean this schedule will also slip. “I know the goal is 2024,” he said, “but I think we have to be brutally realistic that history would tell us, because space development is so hard, that there could be delays to that schedule.”

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