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Congress finally delivers a budget, and NASA gets most of what it wants

NASA administrator Bill Nelson will probably be pretty happy with NASA's final budget, even if it's late.
Enlarge / NASA administrator Bill Nelson will probably be pretty happy with NASA’s final budget, even if it’s late.


Let’s face it, the US budgeting process is largely broken. The current budget year, fiscal year 2022, began back on October 1. This year is now nearly half gone, and the US Congress has yet to pass a budget for it.

To handle this situation federal agencies, including NASA, have kept their doors open with a series of “continuing resolutions” that more or less keep funding at the level of previous years. These provide stopgap funding to prevent a government shutdown.

The problem with this is, if you need to reduce funding for programs that are ending or increase funding for something like a Moon landing during the middle of this decade, you’re out of luck. Due to partisan differences, this is how the budget process has worked for several years in the United States.

But now, finally, it looks as if we have a final budget for the US government for fiscal year 2022. On Tuesday Congress released an omnibus budget for 2022. While legislators will pass a short continuing resolution through March 15, it is expected that Congress will approve, and President Biden will sign, this budget bill by next week.

So what’s in the new budget for NASA? Details can be found in the segment of the budget that funds “Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies,” which includes the space agency. The top line number is that Congress will provide NASA with a budget of $24.04 billion, which is about $760 million less than the agency sought from congressional budget writers. However, this is still about $700 million more than NASA received in fiscal year 2021.

NASA made its formal budget request for this fiscal year to Congress back in May 2021. At the time, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said it was the best budget NASA had ever sought for science programs. “The Biden administration is proving that science is back,” Nelson said during a call with reporters at the time. “This will help NASA address the climate crisis and advance robotic missions to pave the way for humans to explore the Moon and Mars.”

NASA asked for $7.9 billion for its science programs, including a host of robotic missions to explore the Solar System, the James Webb Space Telescope, and new Earth Observation missions. Congress will provide $7.6 billion of this, with the biggest difference in Earth Science. NASA sought $2.25 billion for these programs, and Congress will provide $2.06 billion, although this would still be the largest amount NASA has ever spent studying our planet.

For human exploration, Congress once again added money above NASA’s request for development of the Space Launch System rocket. NASA said it only needed $2.48 billion for the SLS rocket, which has undergone multiple delays and now may launch this summer or fall for the first time. Congress, which has long supported the rocket as it provides many jobs across many states, instead provided $2.6 billion. Because, reasons.

Congress did finally provide meaningful funding for a lander that would take astronauts down to the surface of the Moon and back up to lunar orbit. Although many in Congress were displeased when NASA selected SpaceX to build the Human Landing System—using the Starship vehicle—it nonetheless provided the $1.195 billion the agency said it needed for development in 2022.

But that doesn’t mean appropriators have to be happy about it, as the legislation stipulated: “Within 30 days of enactment of this Act, NASA is directed to deliver a publicly available plan explaining how it will ensure safety, redundancy, sustainability, and competition in the HLS program within the resources provided by this Act and included in the fiscal year 2023 budget request.”

And finally, after years of providing far less than NASA requested, Congress fully funded the space agency’s request of $101 million for “Commercial LEO Development,” which will support the development of commercial space stations. This area of the budget may get more scrutiny in coming months, with questions arising about the stability of the International Space Station partnership between NASA and Russia.

Assuming this budget is passed in the next week, as expected, we can finally put a wrap on the fiscal 2022 year budgeting process. But fear not, the process begins anew in a couple of months, when President Biden releases his budget request for fiscal year 2023 in May.

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