Science Policy & Funding News

Five Takeaways from Trump’s Proposed Budget for NASA

Exploration and privatization dominate the president’s proposed budget for the space agency in the 2019 fiscal year, whereas a major cut to a flagship mission surprises scientists.

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President Donald Trump has requested $19.9 billion for NASA’s 2019 fiscal year (FY), a $500 million increase from FY 2018’s budget request and $61 million below FY 2017’s funding level. If this budget passes Congress unchanged, experts expect it will signal big changes to NASA’s focus and direction.

Notably, the budget request calls for defunding the International Space Station, cutting a flagship space telescope mission, and sending humans back to the Moon for extensive exploration. The budget also carries over requests from 2018, including canceling several Earth-observing satellites and eliminating NASA’s Office of Education. For a breakdown of the budget request compared to 2017’s spending, see Table 1.

Table 1. Proposed Budget for NASA for 2019a
Program FY 2017 Spending Lawb FY 2019 Budget Requestb Changeb Percentage Change
Overall NASA 19,653 19,892 239 1.2
Earth 1,907.7 1,784.2 −123.5 −6.5
Astrophysics 1,352.3 1,185.4 −166.9 −12.3
Total exploration campaign 10,037.5 10,489.9 452.4 4.5
Deep Space Exploration Systems 4,184 4,558.8 374.8 9.0
Low-Earth orbit and spaceflight operations 4,942.5 4,624.6 −317.9 −6.4
International Space Station 1,450.9 1,462.2 11.3 0.8

aSource: NASA “FY 2019 Budget Estimates.”
bIn millions of U.S. dollars, rounded to the nearest million.

Congress has yet to fund NASA for FY 2018, so the agency has been operating with the 2017 budget under a series of continuing resolutions. But as the 2019 budget request was completed, Congress reached a deal that raised the FY 2018 nondefense spending cap (which includes money allocated to NASA) by $63 million and the FY 2019 spending cap by $68 million. As a result, Trump added an extra $300 million in his budget request for FY 2019.

“We are once again on a path to return to the Moon with an eye toward Mars,” said acting NASA administrator Robert Lightfoot in a statement. “NASA is called to refocus existing activities towards exploration, by redirecting funding to innovative new programs and support for new public-private initiatives.”

Here are five main takeaways from the FY 2019 budget request.

Astrophysics Gets the Axe

NASA’s astrophysics division would receive $1.19 billion in Trump’s FY 2019 budget. Although the requested budget continues to fund the $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope (JWST; launching next summer), it also calls for canceling a next-generation telescope that was supposed to follow Hubble, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, or WFIRST.

The response from the astrophysics community was swift and overwhelmingly negative. As David Spergel, an astrophysicist at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., tweeted,

 

WFIRST was intended to have a wider view than JWST and would have followed in Hubble’s footsteps by observing deep space in the infrared. Simultaneously, WFIRST would carry a coronagraph, an instrument used to block starlight that helps scientists directly image planets outside our solar system.

Without this telescope, “we would lose the first in-flight demonstration of the technologies we will need for imaging Earthlike planets and for searching for life on them,” Alycia Weinberger, an astronomer at the Carnegie Institution of Washington in the District of Columbia, told Eos.

A decadal survey of astronomers and astrophysicists released in 2010 outlined WFIRST as one of the top priorities for the future of cosmology and exploring the deep reaches of the universe.

“If WFIRST is considered unaffordable, it is incumbent on the administration to demonstrate how it can pursue the top science recommendations of the astrophysics community absent this mission,” Casey Dreier, director of space policy at the Planetary Society in Pasadena, Calif., told Eos.

Dreier acknowledged that the administration is emphasizing human exploration. However, he added, “a lot of work has gone into planning this mission, and we need to have a far better idea about what the consequences of cancellation are.”

Shooting for the Moon

Human-driven deep-space exploration, starting with the Moon, is heavily emphasized in NASA’s FY 2019 budget request. A little more than 50% of NASA’s overall request—or roughly $10.5 billion—is earmarked to develop exploration technology and support research with the goal of sending humans back to the Moon. According to the request, the administration seeks to go back to the Moon to engage in a long-term exploration campaign.

“It is a good day for the geologic community,” David Kring, a geologist at the Lunar and Planetary Institute in Houston, Texas, told Eos. Kring has studied lunar geology, including Apollo samples, for the past 30 years.

A more expansive exploration of the Moon could answer questions about its formation and how it acquired the water scientists have spotted at its poles, Kring said. Studying the Moon’s craters could give us a peek back billions of years to a period known as the Late Heavy Bombardment, when debris from planetary formation was careening around the solar system like ping-pong balls. Scientists are curious about the role this period may have played in the origin of life.

Aside from pure intellectual pursuits, studying the Moon has applicable benefits, Kring said. One day, we might need its water reservoirs or the volatile elements deposited on its surface.

“We need to go to the lunar polar regions and map out locations of those deposits and assess their potential” for being used by humans, Kring said.

Within the $10.5 billion requested for exploration, $3.67 billion would support NASA’s Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft development, along with crewed missions to the Moon by 2023. Of that, $889 million would support construction of a Lunar Orbital Platform Gateway—a place where future astronauts could work and have access to the Moon’s surface.

Good-Bye International Space Station?

One of the more controversial aspects of Trump’s FY 2019 budget request is to end governmental financial support of the International Space Station (ISS) in 2025.

Rumors about the request circulated days before the budget’s release and were met with sharp criticism. In a conference on 7 February, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who heads up the space subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, reportedly said that he hoped “that those reports prove as unfounded as Bigfoot.”

ISS was launched in 1998 and cost nearly $100 billion. Since its launch, the station has served as a scientific laboratory for research into human spaceflight and studies of how organisms develop in zero gravity. The station is a test bed for new technologies to help future missions and serves as an international training ground for astronauts hoping to go to Mars.

“We have invested massively in the ISS. It has produced enormous benefits to the United States and the world, and we should use that asset as long as it is technologically feasible and cost-effective to do so,” Cruz said. “As long as I’m chairman of the science and space subcommittee, the ISS will continue to have strong and bipartisan support in the United States Congress.”

However, this idea to defund ISS isn’t necessarily new, said Dreier. NASA has two spaceflight programs: ISS and the programs intended to send humans to the Moon and eventually to Mars. The government spends about $3–$4 billion on ISS every year, about half of its human spaceflight budget, Dreier said. Unless NASA’s budget gets a raise overall, the current budget for human spaceflight is “not enough money to fund human exploration on the Moon” while also funding ISS.

“NASA’s budget does need to grow to accommodate” both programs, Dreier continued, “or you’re going to have to make very unpleasant choices.” Dreier sees those unpleasant choices playing out in the defunding of ISS and the canceling of large missions, including WFIRST.

Privatizing Low-Earth Orbit

Trump’s FY 2019 budget requests $150 million to encourage development of commercial activities for low-Earth orbit, although details about this venture are slim, Dreier said.

“This budget proposes to stimulate commercial industry opportunities in low-Earth orbit, providing an off-ramp for government-led operations,” Lightfoot said in a statement.

NASA already partners with some private spaceflight companies, such as launching supplies to ISS using SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft. Continuing to privatize low-Earth orbit brings up a lot of new questions, Dreier said, like who would evaluate whether public-private partnerships are working and what that evaluation would look like.

“It’s hard to make detailed commentary on this,” he continued, beyond the fact that the debate over whether to privatize this region “is worth having now.”

Earth Sciences and Education in Last

Similar to Trump’s FY 2018 request, NASA Earth sciences take a hit with a requested FY 2019 budget of $1.78 billion, an almost 6.5% loss from the $1.92 billion allocated in FY 2017.

As in the 2018 request, the 2019 request also cancels five Earth science missions. These include the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3 (OCO-3), which would observe carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere; the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) Earth-viewing instrument (launched in 2015); and the not-yet-launched Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, Ocean Ecosystem (PACE) satellite. Also cut are the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory Pathfinder (CLARREO) satellite, which would be affixed to the ISS and would provide measurements on how climate systems respond to clouds, snow and ice albedo, and land albedo change, among other things; and the Radiation Budget Instrument, which would measure Earth’s reflected sunlight and emitted thermal radiation.

“By cutting these missions, there will be gaps in data, much of which are crucial to understanding how the Earth is changing—whether or not you agree that it is changing as a result of man-made emissions,” Joyce Penner, an atmospheric scientist at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, told Eos.

Although “the text in the budget announcement for Earth sciences states that the budget supports the ‘Earth and applications communities,’” she continued, “it is hard to see how they do this by terminating a number of important missions.”

As in the FY 2018 budget request, the FY 2019 request also eliminates NASA’s Office of Education, which helps coordinate outreach efforts to attract more students into space.

—JoAnna Wendel (@JoAnnaScience), Staff Writer

Citation: Wendel, J. (2018), Five takeaways from Trump's proposed budget for NASA, Eos, 99, https://doi.org/10.1029/2018EO093153. Published on 15 February 2018.
Text © 2018. The authors. CC BY-NC-ND 3.0
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