Science Policy & Funding News

White House Budget Request Calls for 2.9% Increase for NASA

NASA's proposed budget would provide a small increase overall as well as for the agency's Science Mission Directorate.


The White House’s proposed NASA budget for fiscal year (FY) 2016 is $18.529 billion, an increase of about $519 million above the FY 2015 enacted level. Although the requested 2.9% increase to the agency’s top line is a smaller percentage increase than for many other federal science agencies, it would provide NASA with continuity for most of its programs as well as funding for some key initiatives, including a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa.

The budget request “is a clear vote of confidence” in the agency, said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden on 2 February, the day when the budget request was made. “The world expects a lot from NASA. This small increase will have a big impact,” commented Bill Nye, CEO of The Planetary Society.

Within the total FY 2016 request for NASA, the budget for the agency’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD) would inch up to $5.289 billion from the $5.245 billion FY 2015 enacted level. SMD includes the Earth science, planetary science, astrophysics, and heliophysics programs as well as the James Webb Space Telescope.

Interpreting the Numbers

The FY 2015 enacted numbers were not specified in the administration’s budget request documents for many accounts within SMD and other parts of NASA because the FY 2015 enacted amounts reflect only funding amounts specified in the FY 2015 consolidated appropriations act (Public Law 113-235), according to the agency. At a 2 February budget briefing, NASA chief financial officer David Radzanowski explained, “As we develop our FY ’15 operating plan and get that approved by Congress, those funding levels will be populated with our final plan for FY ’15.”

However, congressional directives that accompanied the appropriations act that President Barack Obama signed into law on 16 December 2014 include funding for NASA science accounts.

Planetary Science

Within SMD, planetary science would receive $1.361 billion compared with the FY 2014 operating plan amount of $1.346 billion. The congressional directive for planetary sciences calls for $1.438 billion in FY 2015; the FY 2016 request would be about $77 million less than that.

Within the planetary sciences budget, $411.9 million is proposed for Mars exploration (compared with the FY 2015 directive’s $305 million), including $228 million to continue development of the Mars 2020 mission. The directive calls for not less than $100 million for a Mars 2020 rover.

The $276.3 million slated for planetary science research (compared with $255.8 million in the congressional directive) includes $162.5 million for planetary science research and analysis (compared with $165.4 million in the directive) and $50 million for near-Earth object observations, up from $40 million in the directive. The budget requests a total of $220 million to support the agency’s activities for an asteroid mission, Radzanowski said.

Trade-offs in Planetary Science

The outer planets programs would receive $116.2 million (down from $181 million in the directive), including $30 million for a mission to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. For the first time, the budget supports the formulation and development of a Europa mission, according to NASA. The congressional directive had provided outer planets programs with not less than $100 million in the FY 2015 enacted budget for a Europa mission.

However, funding for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), launched in 2009, and the Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity, launched in 2003, would be zeroed out. Radzanowski said the agency would assess LRO and the rover to potentially try to identify funds for their continued operation. “You have to make trades between funding new activities and new development missions that bring new cutting edge science versus taking advantage of something that is operating well and also providing good science,” he said.

Janet Luhmann, chair of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) Planetary Science Subcommittee, told Eos that the proposed planetary science budget generally appears to be favorable. “It is gratifying to see that planetary science is appreciated in the proposed 2016 NASA budget compared to several years ago,” said Luhmann, a senior fellow at the Space Sciences Laboratory, University of California, Berkeley.

“In particular, the recognition of the Europa mission in this budget was essential for its continuing development as the next large planetary mission, consistent with decadal survey priorities,” she said. “The budget also allows the next Discovery mission selection to move forward and a new announcement of opportunity for the next New Frontiers mission to be formulated.”

“However,” she continued, “it limits desired extended mission support and plans for any new targeted Mars missions beyond Mars 2020, for example. In addition, foreign mission collaboration opportunities that arise will continue to be constrained,” Luhmann said.

Earth Science Budget

Within SMD, the Earth science budget for FY 2016 totals $1.947 billion (up from $1.773 billion in the FY 2015 directive), including $485.3 million for Earth science research, $895.2 million for Earth systematic missions, $267.7 million for Earth System Science Pathfinder funding, and $190.7 million for Earth science multimission operations.

The FY 2016 request for Earth science “essentially assumes that [NASA] becomes the agency leader for all non-defense Earth observing satellite missions, other than weather,” which will be handled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Radzanowski said. Activities for Landsat land imaging and for activities related to ocean altimetry, solar irradiance, Earth radiation balance, and ozone profile information “now will be the responsibility of NASA.” Radzanowski called attention to the administration’s commitment to a multidecade sustainable land imaging program (which would receive $78.9 million in FY 2016). He said the agency would immediately initiate work on a thermal-infrared free flyer for launch likely in 2019 and on instrumentation for Landsat 9 for launch in 2023.

Heliophysics Account

Proposed total funding in FY 2016 for heliophysics would be $651 million (compared with $662.2 million in the FY 2015 directive), with heliophysics research at $158.5 million, the Living with a Star Program at $343 million, Solar Terrestrial Probes at $50.5 million, and the Heliophysics Explorer Program at $98.9 million.

NASA documents explaining the FY 2016 budget state that the proposed funding calls for restructuring the Solar Terrestrial Probes as a moderate-scale principal investigator–led flight program. It also notes that the budget does not support the Living with a Star program as described in a 2012 heliophysics decadal survey that was prepared by the Space Studies Board of the U.S. National Research Council.

“The FY 2016 budget deviations from decadal survey recommendations are due to overly optimistic decadal assumptions regarding future budgets,” according to NASA budget documents.

Maura Hagan, chair of the NAC Heliophysics Subcommittee, told Eos, “My reaction is that the apparent reduction to the NASA Heliophysics Division [HDP] budget is extremely worrisome. However, the extent and impact of the reduction on HPD programs remains unclear.”

Hagan, who is deputy director of the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) and a senior scientist at the NCAR High Altitude Observatory, added, “Specifically, some of the reduction is in the so-called HPD Directed Research and Technology line item that supports ‘the civil service staff that work on emerging flight projects, instruments, and research’ activities outside of HPD. The Heliophysics Subcommittee requested a detailed briefing on this 2016 budget request and its impacts on the Heliophysics Division. We will comment definitively once we have all of the details.”

Other Budget Highlights

The proposed FY 2016 budget for astrophysics would be $709.1 million (compared with $684.8 million identified in the FY 2015 directive), including $199.3 million for cosmic origins funding, $187.7 million for astrophysics research, $64.2 million for exoplanet exploration, and $85.2 million (compared with $70 million in the directive) for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy. Funding for the James Webb Space Telescope would be $620 million compared with $645.4 million in the FY 2015 enacted budget.

NASA’s exploration budget would increase to $4.506 billion, up from $4.357 in the FY 2015 enacted budget. Within the total for FY 2016 is $2.86 billion for exploration systems development (down from $3.25 billion enacted), including $1.096 billion for the Orion Program (down from $1.194 billion enacted) and $1.357 billion for the space launch system (down from $1.7 billion enacted). The exploration budget request also includes $1.244 billion (up from $805 billion enacted) for commercial spaceflight. The exploration research and development budget would increase to $399.2 million, up from $306.4 million enacted. The space operations budget would be $4.004 billion for FY 2016, up from the FY 2015 enacted level of $3.828 billion. Within that budget is $3.106 billion for the International Space Station.

See for other stories about the budget proposal. Visit in the coming weeks for continued coverage of the proposed budget for federal agencies.

—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2015), White House budget request calls for 2.9% increase for NASA, Eos, 96, doi:10.1029/2015EO025009. Published on 25 February 2015.

© 2015. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0