Science Policy & Funding News

Science Down, Lunar Exploration Up in NASA Budget Request

Here are five key takeaways from the president’s recent budget request for NASA.


President Donald Trump’s budget request for NASA in fiscal year (FY) 2020 prioritizes the development of a sustainable human presence on the Moon over funding for science research, several existing missions, and STEM engagement. On Monday, the administration requested $21.0 billion for NASA, a nearly 6% increase over its request in FY 2019 but a 2% decrease from funding enacted by Congress in February.

“The president has given us Space Policy Directive 1, which says to go back to the Moon, and we’re going to do that in short order,” NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine said at a Monday press conference. “For the first time in over 10 years, we have money in this budget for a return to the Moon with humans.”

“The Moon is the proving ground. Mars is the horizon goal. And it requires an all-of-the-above approach,” he said.

NASA’s deputy chief financial officer for strategy, budget, and performance, Andrew Hunter, told reporters on Monday that the FY 2020 budget request process began before the FY 2019 budget was signed in to law, and that’s why some FY 2019 levels are not continued in this new request. For a closer look at the administration’s priorities for NASA, here are five key highlights for Earth and space science from this budget request.

1. Getting Back to the Moon Is Priority One

Artist’s rendering of the Space Launch System with the Orion spacecraft
Artist’s rendering of the Space Launch System with the Orion spacecraft. Credit: NASA

About half of the requested budget, $10.7 billion, would go toward NASA’s space exploration campaign to return to the Moon, establish a sustainable human presence there, and then land humans on Mars. This campaign includes pure science research, technology development and testing, building and maintenance of launch capabilities, and mission safety and security.

These funds are spread across nearly all mission directorates, including Science and Deep Space Exploration Systems, and the funding prioritizes divisions that aid the Moon-to-Mars goals in what Bridenstine called an “all-of-NASA” approach.

Space Policy Directive 1 is “about having a sustainable human presence on and around the Moon,” Bridenstine said. “In order to achieve that objective, we need a permanent command and service module in orbit around the Moon. We call it Gateway, and that’s fully funded in this president’s budget request.”

The Lunar Orbital Platform–Gateway, or just Gateway, is meant to be a permanent way station between Earth and the Moon and is a key component of NASA’s plan for sustainable lunar travel. The Space Launch System (SLS), its Orion crew vehicle, and the Exploration Ground Systems program are also fully funded in this budget request.

“Getting [Exploration Mission] EM-1 and EM-2 to launch as fast as technically possible is a prime objective of this budget,” Hunter said.

The administration used this budget to emphasize speed and cost in getting to the Moon and staying there. That means incorporating low-cost CubeSats into missions and embracing commercial space travel and reusable launch components.

“We need to drive down costs,” Bridenstine said. “We need to increase access. We need to make spaceflight more available to more people. That includes commercial activities.”

“Wherever possible, we’ll be leveraging and building on commercial and international partnerships as we go forward,” Hunter said. “This program will get us back to the lunar surface soonest.”


2. The James Webb Space Telescope Must Launch

The gold-coated primary mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope
The gold-coated primary mirror of the James Webb Space Telescope. Credit: NASA/Chris Gunn

This budget request includes $352.6 million (a 15.8% increase from FY 2019 enacted levels) for continued development of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). This level of funding, which the administration hopes to maintain in fiscal year 2021, supports the currently projected launch date in 2021.

“This administration is committed to the James Webb Space Telescope, and we have bipartisan support,” Bridenstine said. “When the James Webb Space Telescope is launched and we’re able to see cosmic dawn, it [will establish] the United States as the leader of physics for the next 30 years.”

This budget request prioritizes finishing JWST over developing the telescope that will come after it, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST).

“This budget, like last year’s, provides no funding for WFIRST while the Webb is still being built,” Hunter said. “The dollars aren’t there. And while the science of the WFIRST is exceptional, it’s a priority decision.”

David Spergel, an astrophysicist at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J., shares the concerns of many astronomers that this move is a mistake.

WFIRST is the top astrophysics priority in the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine’s most recent decadal survey and was funded in the FY 2019 enacted budget. WFIRST will contribute to all areas of astrophysics, from the dawn of the universe to the discovery of extrasolar planets. Hunter told reporters that this budget wouldn’t cancel WFIRST for good; it would merely suspend funding and development. He indicated that the mission funding might be open for reconsideration after the launch of JWST in 2021.

3. Science May Take a Large Hit

The Science Mission Directorate (SMD) gets $6.3 billion in this budget request (down 8.7%), including the boost to JWST funding. The Earth Science, Planetary Science, Astrophysics, and Heliophysics Divisions are slated to lose a combined $650 million (a 9.8% cut).

Much of this cut is attributed to the loss of WFIRST from the Astrophysics Division budget (which is down 29%). Planetary Science would lose 4.9% of its funding, Earth Science would lose 7.8%, and Heliophysics would lose a comparatively smaller 2.2%.

“Heliophysics is a critical piece of our Moon-to-Mars capability,” Bridenstine said, because studying space weather and solar radiation will help in developing technologies to protect astronauts from their harmful effects.

An artist’s rendering of the Europa Clipper orbiter flying above Europa’s surface.
An artist’s rendering of the Europa Clipper orbiter flying above Europa’s surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Within the Planetary Science Division, this budget includes funding for the Europa Clipper mission, the Mars 2020 rover, and a yet-to-be-selected Mars sample return mission. Funding for the asteroid exploration missions Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), Lucy, and Psyche are also included.

Casey Dreier, senior space policy adviser at The Planetary Society, told Eos that despite the funding cuts to science across multiple agencies, these missions “are good aspects to this budget request that deserve recognition.” The Mars sample return mission “will be the most important, difficult, and exciting Mars mission in history, and it is a top goal of the planetary science community.” It’s “exactly the sort of mission NASA should be doing,” he said.

4. STEM Engagement Is Zeroed Out Again

As it did in FY 2019, the administration requested no funding for NASA’s Office of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) Engagement (formerly the Office of Education).

“The STEM Engagement dollars have been zeroed out,” Hunter said. “However, we do continue internships, fellowships, and students’ STEM engagement activities funded by NASA mission directorates, and the SMD science activation program will continue.” He said that funding for these efforts through other directorates totals approximately $45 million.

Congress recently increased NASA’s STEM Engagement budget to $110 million in FY 2019 despite the president’s previous request.

5. Two Earth Science Missions Are Defunded

The FY 2020 budget request does not include funding for two Earth science missions related to climate: the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) mission to help us better understand how the ocean and the atmosphere exchange carbon dioxide, and the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) Pathfinder mission to better inform climate models by measuring how much sunlight Earth reflects at every wavelength. The administration requested in FY 2019 to defund these two missions, but Congress continued their funding in the enacted budget.

Orbiting Carbon Observatory–3 (OCO-3) and Deep Space Carbon Observatory (DSCOVR) were also slated to be defunded in the FY 2019 budget request. They were funded in the FY 2019 enacted budget, and the FY 2020 budget proposal continues funding for both of these missions, as well as “over 30 [Earth science] missions in all stages of development and operation,” according to Hunter.

A more detailed justification of the FY 2020 budget request will be released on 18 March.

—Kimberly M. S. Cartier (@AstroKimCartier), Staff Writer

Citation: Cartier, K. M. S. (2019), Science down, lunar exploration up in NASA budget request, Eos, 100, Published on 13 March 2019.
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