The president’s budget request for NASA is out, and it looks like the space program won’t be dealing with as many of the extreme cuts that other federal agencies are facing next year. Released this morning, the request would give NASA $19.1 billion for fiscal year 2018, roughly $200 million less than the $19.3 billion the agency received for 2016. The request keeps NASA on more or less the same path the agency’s been on for the last seven years, though it does propose a few big shakeups — including some fairly harsh cuts to NASA’s Earth science and education programs.
In a statement, Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot said the proposal “is in line with our funding in recent years, and will enable us to effectively execute our core mission for the nation, even during these times of fiscal constraint.”
Some notable missions are canceled under the request, including NASA’s contentious Asteroid Redirect Mission — an initiative to robotically retrieve a piece of an asteroid and bring it into the vicinity of the Moon. However, Lightfoot emphasized that much of the solar propulsion technology developed for the mission could still be carried forward to future projects. “I have had personal involvement with this team and their progress for the past few years, and am I extremely proud of their efforts to advance this mission,” Lightfoot said.
A mission to land on Jupiter’s moon Europa is also canceled, though a mission to fly by the icy world, known as the Europa Clipper mission, made the cut. Meanwhile, the proposal doesn’t call for any major changes in focus for NASA’s human exploration program. There’s no language about a return to the Moon, so the agency is still ostensibly on a “Journey to Mars” for now.
However, the budget request does place an emphasis on NASA working with the commercial space industry, mentioning that the proposal “supports and expands public-private partnerships as the foundation of future U.S. civilian space efforts.” The document argues that under the new budget, NASA will be open to “collaboration with industry” for operating the space station, developing deep-space habitats, and maintaining small satellite constellations.
Perhaps the biggest changes would be felt in NASA’s science programs. NASA’s planetary science program gets a boost, receiving $1.9 billion, up from $1.6 billion in 2016. But while the study of other planets would get more funding, the study of our own planet would get less. Earth science would receive only $1.8 billion, down from $1.9 billion in 2016. Along with that funding decrease, the president’s request also calls for the termination of several major Earth science initiatives, including NASA’s carbon monitoring program and the agency’s involvement in the DSCOVR program. DSCOVR — or the Deep Space Climate Observatory — was originally proposed by Vice President Al Gore as a way to continually monitor Earth. The satellite, which is jointly operated by NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, just launched in 2015 on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. It’s been taking daily images of the Earth with its EPIC instrument for nearly two years now.
Meanwhile, NASA’s education program, which received $115 million in 2016, would be completely eliminated. The request argues that this will allow NASA’s Science Mission Directorate to be more focused on the agency’s education efforts. “The Office of Education has experienced significant challenges in implementing a NASA-wide education strategy and is performing functions that are duplicative of other parts of the agency,” the request says.
As for NASA’s human spaceflight program, things mostly stay the same. Currently, the space agency is building two vehicles — a giant rocket called the Space Launch System and a crew capsule called Orion — to send people into deep space, and potentially onto Mars someday. Those two programs will receive a combined $3.7 billion under the request, roughly the same budget they received in 2016. The lack of an increase for SLS and Orion probably means that NASA won’t be changing its current mission plan for the programs. A couple of weeks ago, NASA said it was looking into trying something new, by putting people on the first flight of the SLS and Orion. But without a budget increase, it seems likely that NASA will stick with its original plan: an uncrewed flight of SLS in 2018, followed by a crewed mission a few years later.
The president’s budget request for NASA is traditionally borne of back-and-forth negotiations between the space agency and the Office of Management and Budget — an office within the executive branch that comes up with the numbers the president wants the government to spend each year. Initially, NASA gives OMB the budget the agency thinks it will need to pull off all of its plans. Then the OMB sends back a revised version of the budget, based on what the president is looking for. NASA does its best to meet the OMB’s direction, which then leads to the president’s budget request.
The request does not actually give funds to the space agency, though. That’s the job of the appropriators in Congress. Now that the request has been released, it will be reviewed and revised by both the House and the Senate. Congress is expected to vote on a final budget later this year.
Update 9:50AM ET: Updated with Lightfoot statement.