Budget Spares NASA From Cuts As Deep As Other Research Agencies

Kennedy Space Center in shown in February. Kennedy Space Center in shown in February. Nadezda Murmakova/Shutterstock.com

The White House’s newly released budget request for NASA includes cuts across most of the space agency’s programs, representing a nearly 3-percent decrease in the funding approved for the 2017 fiscal year.

President Donald Trump requested on Tuesday $19.1 billion in funding for NASA, an amount that comprises about one half of 1 percent of the nation’s budget each year. The figure is smaller than the $19.65 billion Congress approved earlier this month in its omnibus spending bill, and slightly higher than the $19 billion requested by former President Barack Obama in his final proposal. Trump’s request is also in line with NASA’s current spending levels; in fiscal year 2016, the space agency received $19.3 billion.

The new numbers track closely with the blueprint budget the Trump administration released in March, which teased the highlights of the president’s fiscal plans. The preview document put dollar amounts on the Trump administration’s sense of NASA’s priorities, favoring space-exploration efforts over earth-science research and education initiatives. The full budget released Tuesday will be reviewed by Congress, and then sent back to the president’s desk. 

Trump’s budget allocates $5.7 billion for NASA’s science division, which includes programs for planetary and earth sciences, astrophysics, heliophysics, and the James Webb Space Telescope, scheduled for launch next year. That figure represents a 1 percent decrease from the 2017 budget, but is slightly larger than Obama’s request for that year. The earth-sciences program, specifically—which studies the planet’s surface, atmosphere, oceans, and changing climate—would see the biggest cut, down 9 percent from current spending levels. Trump allocates $1.75 billion for the program, less than the $1.9 billion Congress approved in its last budget and the $2 billion Obama requested. Three planned earth-science missions receive no funding.

The winner here is the planetary-science program, which oversees robotic missions in the solar system. The increase between the figure congressional lawmakers appropriated ($1.8 billion) and what Trump wants ($1.9 billion) is small, but what’s notable is that the White House and Congress appear to be on the same page in this area. For the last five years, the Obama administration has proposed cuts to planetary science each year, and Congress has always put funding back in.

The education division, which usually receives $100 million each year, would get $37 million, all of which would be used to close it out. The Trump administration first signaled its desire to shutter the office in its blueprint budget, prompting shock among supporters of its popular Space Grant program, which since 1989 has funded fellowships and scholarships for students across the country.

Trump’s budget also includes single-digit cuts to NASA’s exploration division, which houses projects like the Space Launch System and the Orion crew capsule, and space operations, which oversees the International Space Station and the Commercial Crew Program, which works with private-sector companies like SpaceX to develop launch capabilities. The Space Launch System has big fans in Congress, though, particularly among Republicans whose home states support its construction, so some funding may be replenished there. Trump’s budget provides for a robotic mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa in 2020, but does not allocate dollars specifically for a lander. The budget also ignores the Asteroid Redirect Mission, an Obama-era proposal to lasso a nearby asteroid that has little support in the scientific community.

The budget calls for some increases in mostly agency-supporting offices, as well as the office of the inspector general.

“It could have been a lot worse,” said Casey Dreier, the director of space policy at the Planetary Society in California, of Trump’s fiscal plans for NASA. “At the same time, we have to be honest and say that this budget is not great for NASA’s stated goals of exploring Mars or of developing its next major human spaceflight projects, as there is not enough money to support either in a reasonable timeframe.”

NASA has been spared some of the worst cuts to the government’s other scientific agencies, like the Environmental Protection Agency, which Trump wants to cut by more than 31 percent, and the National Science Foundation, which is facing an 11 percent cut. Other agencies that handle medical research and disease-prevention programs would also see double-digit cuts compared to 2017 budgets. The fact that NASA would receive only a single-digit decrease makes the space agency a winner in the larger federal budget, Casey said.  

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