NASA is staying focused on the Artemis lunar program, its Moon to Mars objectives, and maintaining a presence in low Earth orbit as part of the agency’s proposed budget for 2024. The space agency also has a new item on its annual wishlist: a space tug to deorbit the International Space Station (ISS) at the end of its life.
On Monday, NASA elaborated on its allocated budget for 2024, which was released last week, providing more detail as to where that money will be going. President Joe Biden is seeking a $27.2 billion budget next year for the space agency, a 7% increase from last year and more funding towards NASA’s future missions to the Moon.
During a call with reporters, NASA’s Chief Financial Officer Margaret Vo Schaus highlighted the key priorities for the budget, such as establishing a presence on and around the Moon, developing a new plan to deorbit the ISS, and launching samples from the surface of Mars as early as 2030.
NASA’s proposed budget includes $180 million for developing a deorbit capability for the ISS by the end of 2030. Should the budget be approved, the space agendcy would call upon the private sector to come up with a space tug concept to lower the orbit of the ISS so that it can reenter and burn up through Earth’s atmosphere. NASA had previously suggested using Russia’s Progress cargo spacecraft to deorbit the ISS, and apparently that option is still on the table as well.
“Our current model is still to use [the Russian spacecraft] and we’re continuing to work with our Russian counterparts on how to deorbit safely with the Progress vehicles,” Kathy Lueders, associate administrator for NASA Space Operations, told me during the call. “But we are also developing this U.S. capability as a way to have redundancy and be able to better aid the targeting of the vehicle and the safe return of the vehicle.”
Lueders estimates that the total cost of the space tug would be around $1 billion, with the requested $180 million meant to give the space agency a start on the project in the coming year.
Still, NASA’s Artemis program sits at the top of the space agency’s to-do list, snagging $8.1 billion from the budget (an increase from last year’s $7.5 billion). The plan still stands for NASA to land humans on the Moon as early as 2025, and start on the construction of the Lunar Gateway, an outpost orbiting the Moon that will house astronauts and scientific research.
The budget request will allocate $2.5 billion towards the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, which was used for the liftoff of the Artemis 1 mission in November 2022, “to focus on successful completion of Artemis 2, and make necessary preparations for Artemis 3 and 4, which includes the enhanced upper stage configuration and other upgrades,” Schaus said during the call.
NASA also wants to further develop its Moon to Mars program, a proposed idea to use the Moon as a testbed to eventually land humans on Mars. “I want to highlight that our Moon to Mars objectives include a steady pace of basic applied and enabling science, lunar and planetary science, physics, physical science, and human biological science,” Schaus said. “It also includes conducting science and collecting data through robotic exploration of Mars.”
Following that same objective, NASA is also focusing on its Mars Sample Return Mission to bring back rock samples currently being stowed away by the Perseverance Rover on the Martian surface. The future mission was allocated $949 million to launch samples from the surface of Mars as early as 2030, an increase from $800 million originally assigned to the mission the year before.
NASA’s Mars Sample Return Mission is getting a portion of the total funding for science, which adds up to $8.26 billion in the 2024 budget. Some of the missions that were highlighted as part of the budget include the James Webb Space Telescope, the Nancy Grace Roman Telescope (scheduled for launch in 2027), the Europa Clipper mission to study Jupiter’s moon (scheduled to launch in 2024), and the ExoMars Mission.
ExoMars, a collaboration between the European Space Agency (ESA) and its Russian counterpart, was supposed to launch this year but the mission suffered an unfortunate delay following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. ESA severed ties with Russia, and NASA may be stepping in to help launch the rover by 2028.
Based on the 2024 budget, NASA wants to maintain its low Earth orbit presence (at least until 2030), establish a presence on and around the Moon, and get humans to Mars in the near future. The proposed budget seems to be a seal of approval for the space agency’s ambitious plans. Hopefully Congress will see it the same way.