Science Policy & Funding News

Proposed NASA Budget: Earth Science Up, Planetary Science Down

A new line item for space transportation would support NASA partnerships with commercial spaceflight vendors and reduce dependence on Russia for transporting astronauts.


President Barack Obama’s fiscal year (FY) 2017 budget proposal for NASA boosts Earth science funding and significantly cuts planetary science and education. Overall, the proposed FY 2017 NASA budget of $19.025 billion, which includes new line items to support commercial space flight, shrinks by 1.3% compared to the (FY) 2016 enacted budget of $19.285 billion.

“The investments in the president’s FY 2017 budget proposal announced today will empower the people of NASA to improve our quality of life today,” Charles Bolden, NASA administrator, said in a statement last Tuesday, the day the Obama administration released its full federal budget proposal for the coming fiscal year. “While our future is unknown, we can say with a great deal of certainty that investments in NASA’s today are investments in our children’s and grandchildren’s tomorrow.”

This year, the Obama administration began a new strategy of designating some funding for federal science agencies and programs as “mandatory” and therefore unaffected by budget caps set in 2015. In line with that approach, the overall NASA FY 2017 budget proposal includes $763 million of such mandatory funding, divided between science and other programs. Budget analysts say it’s likely Congress will reject this new strategy. Not counting the funding identified as “mandatory,” the NASA budget would decline to $18.26 billion, a 5.3% reduction.

Earth Science Gets a Boost

As presented, the agency’s proposed budget for FY 2017 sets aside $2.032 billion for Earth sciences (see Table 1)—a $111 million (5.8%) increase from the FY 2016 enacted budget—out of its total of $5.6 billion for science. The increase in Earth sciences would help to accelerate the joint NASA–U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Landsat 9 satellite mission, which will continue to provide measurements of the Earth’s land cover. The proposed budget could move up Landsat 9’s launch date, which was originally set for 2023, to 2021.

Table 1. Proposed Budget for NASA for FY 2017
Program FY 2016 Enacteda FY 2017 Budgeta Changea Percent Change
Overall NASA 19,285 19,025 −260 −1.3
Science    5589    5600     11   0.0
         Earth Science    1921    2032    111   5.8
         Astrophysics      731      782     51   7.0
         Heliophysics      650      699    49   7.5
   1631    1519 -112  -6.9
Exploration Research and Development      350      477  127 36.3
Education      115      100    15 −13.0
aIn millions of U.S. dollars, rounded to the nearest million.

“An FY 2021 launch for Landsat 9 allows for the possibility of replacing Landsat 7 before its fuel is depleted,” Virginia Burkett, USGS associate director for climate and land use change, told Eos. “Landsat 9 will be an improved version of the highly successful Landsat 8 mission, and will sustain the Landsat series of measurements into the 2030s.”

The Earth science budget request “supports and indeed expands vigorous research and analysis programs that advance our knowledge of the Earth as an integrated system,” Michael Freilich, director of NASA’s Earth Science Division at NASA Goddard, told Eos. It “invests in the technologies that will enable future cutting-edge Earth-observing satellite missions.”

Planetary Cuts

In planetary sciences, the FY 2017 budget proposal includes $1.519 billion, a 6.9% reduction from the $1.631 billion in the FY 2016 enacted budget—marking the fifth year in a row that cuts were made to planetary sciences, noted Casey Dreier, director of space policy at The Planetary Society, in a blog post.

“While every other science division at NASA would receive a funding boost in this budget, planetary science, the year after flying by Pluto and confirming flowing water on Mars, earns a [$112] million cut,” Dreier wrote.

The proposed FY 2017 budget provides $46.9 million for a robotic mission to Europa, a significant cut from FY 2016’s enacted level of $175 million, but a launch in the 2020s is still anticipated. The proposed FY 2017 budget also maintains several existing missions, including Mars Curiosity and Opportunity.

“But the fact of the matter is that [the planetary science] program has been underfunded for years and needs to rebuild,” Dreier wrote.

Space Flight, Education, and Other Directives

This year, the FY 2017 budget proposal includes “space transportation”—an entirely new line item—which would receive $2.8 billion to continue NASA’s partnership with commercial spaceflight companies such as SpaceX and decrease the nation’s dependence on Russian spaceflight capabilities for crew transportation. The Asteroid Redirect Mission, wherein NASA hopes to capture an asteroid and direct it into orbit around the moon for exploration purposes, would receive a portion of the $477 million allocated for exploration research and development.

Funding for education takes a hit in the FY 2017 proposed budget—down to $100 million from $115 million (a 13% decrease) in the FY 2016 enacted budget.

—JoAnna Wendel, Staff Writer

Citation: Wendel, J. (2016), Proposed NASA budget: Earth science up, planetary science down, Eos, 97, doi:10.1029/2016EO046141. Published on 15 February 2016.

Text © 2016. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0
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