NASA Administrator Bill Nelson gave his annual State of NASA speech on Thursday dropping the news of when the agency would announce the four astronauts that will fly on the first crewed mission of the Artemis program while giving a top-level look at a record budget request from President Biden.
The three Americans and one Canadian chosen to fly to the moon, but not land on it, will be revealed on April 3, Nelson said.
It will be the first time humans have flown to the moon since the end of the Apollo program in 1972. The four will strap into the Orion capsule to be launched from Kennedy Space Center atop the Space Launch System rocket on the Artemis II mission now targeting November 2024 liftoff. That would be about two years after the successful launch of the uncrewed Artemis I flight in 2022.
The various parts for the Artemis II hardware will come together in Florida by the summer and be stacked at KSC’s Vehicle Assembly Building this winter.
Nelson said that NASA would also soon reveal the look of the in-development spacesuits that will be used for the following mission, Artemis III, that aims to return humans, including the first woman, to the lunar surface.
That mission is still targeted for late 2025, or about 12 months after the flight of Artemis II. It is reliant on the completion of the spacesuits, being done by commercial company Axiom Space, but also the Human Landing System contract winner SpaceX, which has to complete the development of its Starship and Super Heavy rocket so a version of Starship can bring from Orion down to the moon’s South Pole.
“Absolutely watching the Starship launches. We need them to launch,” said NASA directorate head Jim Free in an Artemis update earlier this week. “Looking at the contract that we have with them and frankly the technical risks they need to buy down before we’re ready to launch crew, so absolutely watching.”
The funds to keep Artemis II and III on target have already been approved by Congress for this fiscal year that runs through September, but President Biden released his 2024 budget on Thursday looking to bump NASA’s budget up another 7.1% to $27.2 billion, the most ever requested for the agency.
Historically, though, the 2024 request would still be under half a percent of the nation’s overall spending, much less than the Apollo-era spending that peaked at 4.4% of the nation’s budget in 1966.
“This budget request reflects the administration’s confidence in NASA and its faith in the world’s finest workforce,” Nelson said.
Nearly 1/3 of that is for Artemis, up to $8.1 billion, a $500 million increase from 2023′s level.
“The Budget fully funds the rockets, crew vehicle, lunar landers, space suits, and other systems needed to fly astronauts around the Moon on the Artemis II mission and then land astronauts — including the first woman, first person of color, and first astronauts from another nation — on subsequent Artemis missions on the lunar surface as America begins development of a lunar outpost and aims toward the eventual exploration of Mars,” reads the budget request overview.
Other highlights include $949 million for the continuing Mars Sample Return mission and $180 million to develop a new “space tug” to ensure the International Space Station has a safe end-of-life descent into Earth’s atmosphere.
“The task for us now is to keep NASA heading onward and upward,” Nelson said.
The overview was just a top-level look at the $6.8 trillion budget proposal. A more detailed breakdown will be released Monday. NASA Associate Administrator Bob Cabana and Chief Financial Officer Margaret Vo Schaus will do a deeper dive into the budget details upon release.
The eventual enacted budget is likely to get reduced significantly by Congress, which has for the past three years approved less than what was requested by both President Biden and Trump for NASA, including a shortfall of $500 million in 2023 from the nearly $26 billion requested.
The 2024 request is even more susceptible to debate with a Republican-controlled House that has vowed to rein in spending.
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