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NASA Holding Its Own, But FY2018 Request Portrays Murky Future

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 23-May-2017
Updated: 23-May-2017 11:19 PM

President Trump's complete FY2018 budget request was sent to Congress today.  It confirms that NASA's budget for the next five years is projected to be flat at $19.062 billion, with no adjustment for inflation. That will complicate efforts to move forward on efforts to send people to Mars.  The request also would terminate a fifth earth science mission -- Radiation Budget Instrument (RBI).  Although NASA fared well compared to many non-defense agencies, it certainly will face challenges.

Last month, NASA Acting Chief Scientist Gale Allen said that with a flat budget, NASA would lose $3.4 billion in buying power over that period of time (FY2018-2022).

President Trump may have been joking when he told Peggy Whitson that he wanted to get people to Mars while he was in office, but his budget request does not even support the Deep Space Gateway that has become the centerpiece of NASA's human spaceflight planning now that the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) is being terminated.  While it is still conceptual, NASA officials describe it as a lunar orbiting facility that could support lunar surface operations by international and commercial partners (NASA still has no plans to return astronauts to the lunar surface itself) and be the embarkation point for astronauts heading to Mars on Deep Space Transports.

During a media briefing today, Acting NASA Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Andrew Hunter said that while the term Deep Space Gateway has been "used externally," it does not appear in the budget request.  Proceeding with the concept is "somewhat inhibited" by the flat, non-inflation adjusted budgets projected for the future, he said, while expressing hope that the Trump Administration and Congress can be convinced to support it later. 

The budget requests for the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft are slightly less than what Congress appropriated for FY2017: $1.938 billion requested for SLS compared with $2.150 billion appropriated in FY2017, and $1.186 billion requested for Orion compared with $1.350 billion appropriated in FY2017. That certainly is not the level of support needed to accelerate human missions to Mars or even to get there in 2033 as proposed in the NASA Transition Authorization Act that Trump signed into law in March.  Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot said today that the budget supports plans to send humans to orbit Mars "in the 2030s."

One surprise in the request today is termination of a fifth earth science mission.  The budget blueprint released in March called for terminating four -- PACE, CLARREO-Pathfinder, OCO-3, and the earth-facing instruments on DSCOVR. The complete budget also calls for canceling the Radiation Budget Instrument (RBI) being built by Harris Corporation for NOAA's JPSS-2 spacecraft.  RBI is a scanning radiometer that would continue measurements of Earth's reflected sunlight and emitted radiation currently obtained by CERES instruments.  It is being terminated because of cost growth and technical challenges.

The budget request confirms that NASA's Office of Education would be eliminated. The request includes $37 million for Education, but that covers only close out costs for grants and salaries, for example.  Hunter said that no funding is included for the Space Grant, EPSCoR or MUREP programs. All are very popular in Congress.  He even conceded that NASA expects Congress to add back money for some of those activities and has not yet determined how they would be managed absent the Office of Education.

Lightfoot summed it all up by saying "The hard choices are still there.  We can't do everything, but we certainly can do a lot."  He characterized the message from the Trump Administration as "keep going."

The budget request is just that -- a request.  Presidents propose budgets, but under the Constitution only Congress decides how much money to spend and on what.  Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, made that point today.  He said his committee would thoroughly analyze Trump's overall budget request for the government and hold hearings: "Only then can Congress put forward our own plan...."

More information about the NASA budget request is in SpacePolicyOnline.com's NASA FY2018 budget fact sheet.


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