An In-Depth Look at the FY 2024 NASA Budget Request
Yaswant Devarakonda American Astronomical Society (AAS)
The Astro2020 and the 2023 Planetary Science Decadal Surveys outlined an ambitious outlook for the future of astronomy, and the upcoming Heliophysics Decadal Survey seeks to do the same. The recommendations brought forth in these surveys will push the boundaries of science and technology, and they will require significant investments to bring to light. However, the FY 2024 NASA budget request takes a less ambitious approach. Budget increases for the Mars Sample Return mission have required a shift in resource allocation, mirroring the budgetary issues with JWST. And with a looming debt-limit showdown, it appears that all non-defense discretionary funding is on the chopping block. Let’s take a look at some of the key points in the NASA budget request.
Overall, the request asks for $27.2 billion, a 7% increase over the 2023 enacted level. The Science Mission Directorate (SMD) will receive a 6% bump to $8.2 billion. This is similar to increases in other major directorates such as Deep Space Exploration and Space Operations, which each receive a 6.7% raise. STEM Engagement will receive a large increase of 10%, rising to $158 million.
The Planetary Science Division remains the most well-funded SMD division at $3.4 billion, a 6% increase over the FY 2023 enacted budget. The Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission dominates the division's budget, accounting for 28% of all Planetary Science. Even with proposed budget increases to meet project scope and launch date, the budget is expected to bloom even higher as the project continues. The MSR budget has led to reductions in funding and delays for other missions, and by the end of this year NASA will conduct a mission review of MSR to determine if descoping is necessary to remain on budget and schedule. For instance, one of the two planned Ingenuity-type helicopters may be removed from the project.
In addition to budgetary reallocations due to MSR, workforce shortages at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) have led to labor reallocations in several key projects. This is why the Psyche mission has been pushed back to an October 2023 launch date, while VERITAS (which is still in formulation and has yet to be confirmed) has been delayed for at least 3 years. The Announcement of Opportunity (AO) for the next Discovery class mission is slated for FY 2025. For the New Frontiers program, the Dragonfly mission is receiving an 18% reduction in funding relative to FY 2023 enacted levels, which NASA claims is reflective of the planned June 2027 launch readiness date. The AO for the New Frontiers program has been moved up from 2025 to no earlier than November 2023 to reduce the time between AOs for the program.
Based on recommendations from the 2023 Planetary Decadal, NASA is requesting that the Research and Analysis budget be increased to 7.5% of the total Planetary Science budget, with the goal of growing to 10% of the total Planetary Science budget by FY 2028. The Decadal also recommends that the next flagship be a mission to explore either Uranus or Neptune, with formulation for such a mission expected to begin in FY 2025.
Astrophysics is budgeted for $1.5 billion (similar to previous years). Within the Cosmic Origins program, the Strategic Research and Technology (SR&T) program is receiving $30 million to support program specific research and technology developments. This includes the ongoing Mirror Technology Development program as well as the planning process for GOMAP, with funds ramping up in subsequent years for development of the Habitable Worlds Explorer.
The Physics of the Cosmos program budget sustains funding for missions such as Fermi and Chandra. The program's SR&T budget of $92 million will support NASA’s contribution to the ATHENA and LISA missions led by the European Space Agency (ESA) as well as development of research and technology for Time Domain astronomy, as recommended by the Astro2020 Decadal. The Exoplanet program will have a planned reduction in funding as the Roman Space Telescope wraps up construction. The Exoplanet SR&T budget of $56 million will support the testing of instruments (such as the coronagraph) for the upcoming Habitable Worlds Explorer.
In the Astrophysics Explorer program, missions such as TESS, NICER, Swift, and NuStar are supported through FY 2025, at which time a 3-year senior review will assess further funding. COSI has been delayed to 2027 to make room in the budget for higher priority missions, while SPHEREx is on track to launch in 2025. $7.5 million is being allocated to a Probes program, as recommended by the Astro2020 Decadal. The AO for the Probes program will be released no earlier than July 2023; a draft AO was released in August 2022 for community input. The two potential MIDEX mission (UVEX and STAR-X) and two potential MO missions (MoonBEAM and LEAP) are all moving forward with Phase A studies. The next AO for SMEX and MO missions has been pushed back from March 2024 to March 2025 due to budget constraints.
Heliophysics is receiving a drastic reduction of 7% in budget request (down to $751 million), as the Geospace Dynamics Constellation (GDC) has been put on pause to reallocate resources towards projects such as MSR. As a result, the Living with a Star program (which houses GDC) will have its budget reduced by 32%, from $147 million to $100 million. Meanwhile, the MUSE and HelioSwarm missions are continuing as planned. NASA will begin reassessing mission priorities later this year, after the release of the upcoming Heliophysics Decadal Survey.