When President Trump’s budget proposal went live on 16 March, scientists across the United States expressed alarm at its harsh cuts. Of particular concern was NASA’s budget.
President Trump proposed $19.1 billion for NASA overall in fiscal year 2018, down 0.8% from the current $19.2 billion. But within this overall budget were winners and losers: Earth science took a significant hit, with multiple climate-related missions threatened with cancellation. However, planetary science’s proposed budget would be a windfall, up by more than 16% in the proposal compared to this year’s budget.
In a town hall meeting on Monday at the 48th Lunar and Planetary Science Conference in The Woodlands, Texas, NASA’s Planetary Sciences Division director Jim Green and other NASA officials discussed the administration’s planetary sciences budget, along with other business. Here are four main takeaways from NASA’s presentations and the discussion that followed.
1. Excitement over Planetary Science’s Historic Win
Ever since Green became the head of NASA’s Planetary Science Division 11 years ago, he’s “been waiting to talk about the planetary budget in a tremendously positive way.”
This year, Green got his wish. President Trump requested $1.9 billion from Congress for NASA’s planetary science budget for fiscal year 2018, which is a 20% increase from Obama’s request for 2017 and a 16.5% increase from the current $1.63 billion.
“This is historic,” Green told the packed crowd. “We never had a proposed budget this high.”
The proposed bump to the budget for planetary sciences is also the highest increase of any line item at NASA this year, he said. The proposed budget allows continued work on NASA’s Space Launch System and Orion capsule (which was allotted $3.7 billion in the overall budget), the Mars 2020 rover mission, and the Europa Clipper mission, which aims to launch in the 2020s to study Jupiter’s icy ocean moon.
Gone from the proposed budget, however, is the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), which would have collected a boulder from a near-Earth asteroid and repositioned it in Earth’s orbit for future study. The proposed budget will go to Congress, where the fate of ARM will ultimately be decided, explained Ben Bussey, chief exploration scientist for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate at NASA. “We won’t really know exactly what is happening until we see [Congress’s] appropriations bill.”
2. Alarm over Earth Science’s Funding Losses
Although planetary science fared well in Trump’s proposed budget, several scientists questioned Green about their concern over the fate of NASA’s Earth science programs. Clifford Carley, an unaffiliated attendee, praised NASA for being a leader in promoting science for “the [planet] we’re standing on” and asked how NASA plans to address the rising concern among scientists and the public regarding human-driven climate change.
Green acknowledged the proposed cuts and added that “Earth science is following the Earth science decadal [survey] and will continue to do so.”
Trump’s proposed Earth science budget for NASA is $1.8 billion for fiscal year 2018, a $102 million cut from last year’s $1.9 billion. To accommodate this, several not yet launched missions are slated to be canceled. These missions include the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, Ocean Ecosystem satellite, which would study aerosols and clouds in the atmosphere over the oceans; the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3, which would be mounted to the International Space Station and measure Earth’s atmospheric carbon dioxide from space; and the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory, which would help scientists improve climate models.
Also on the chopping block are certain funds for the Deep Space Climate Observatory. This satellite is already in orbit around Earth and studies solar wind, so the budget cut would affect only its Earth-viewing instruments.
Although the proposed cuts in missions focus on those that monitor climate change, there’s only so much that the planetary-focused NASA officials present at the town hall can do about this, noted Robert Nelson, a researcher at the Planetary Sciences Institute in Tucson, Ariz. Advocating for Earth science, he commented to Green, is “not your legally defined job.” Advocacy, he continued, is the job of everyone in the room.
Nelson encouraged his fellow scientists to do more outreach to help the public understand the importance of the threatened missions. He urged members of the audience to contact their senators and representatives to “let them know from the science perspective the appalling prospect that the [proposed] budget means for environmental science.”
3. Uncertainty About Education
Among items proposed to be slashed from the NASA budget in the 2018 fiscal year is the Office of Education, a line item costing $115 million. This office provides education opportunities such as the National Space Grant College and Fellowship Program, also known as Space Grant, which has operated since 1989. These grants help fund education opportunities at universities, science centers, museums, and state and local agencies across the United States.
“I would not be here in this career track, let alone in this conference room, if it weren’t for NASA Space Grant,” said John Christoph, a graduate assistant in planetary sciences at Arizona State University in Tempe. “We in the scientific community are going to have to do more outreach and education efforts to ensure all the students out there continue to have the same education opportunities they have, whether it’s pre-kindergarten or post-grad.”
Christoph then asked, “What is NASA headquarters prepared to do to support that?”
Green explained that although the Office of Education had been cut, the Science Mission Directorate was dedicated to finding new educational and outreach opportunities.
4. Caution About Planetary Science in the Future
Elise Harrington, a graduate student in geology at the University of Western Ontario in London, Canada, wondered whether some planetary science funds could be shifted to stem the pending damage to Earth science from the proposed cuts, perhaps through studying Earth analogues. Green pointed out that planetary scientists already engage in Earth-focused research, like studying extreme environments on Earth to better understand what life might exist elsewhere in the solar system.
However, Nancy Chabot, a planetary scientist at Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., encouraged the crowd not to let its enthusiasm for a large planetary science budget cloud real concerns about Earth and environmental sciences.
“I personally feel that it’s very short-sighted to be excited about the planetary budget, because planetary science does not live in isolation from the rest of the science community in this country. So I would temper your enthusiasm a little bit,” she said, speaking directly to Green and his colleagues. “We cannot just be supporting planetary science. This will be a short-term gain potentially but a long-term loss if the scientific community in the United States is not strong everywhere, all around.”
Now is the time to fight for all sciences, stressed several attendees. “This is not the time to let someone else do it,” Nelson said. “If you want to do this kind of work, you have to take the responsibility to fight for it.”
—JoAnna Wendel (@JoAnnaScience), Staff Writer
Editor’s Note: In response to President Trump’s budget proposal, the American Geophysical Union’s Executive Director/CEO Christine McEntee issued a statement on 16 March expressing that the international organization of Earth and space scientists is “disheartened and significantly concerned by the president’s budget proposal, which clearly devalues science and research.”