Yesterday we were treated to the first full budget from the Trump administration, which included their request for NASA funding. While there aren’t too many surprises, it does confirm a few fears including cuts to climate science and education.
The total budget request for the fiscal year 2018, which begins on October 1 this year, comes in at $19.1 billion, about $300 million less than NASA’s previous fiscal year. This budget will now go to Congress, where the House and Senate will decide upon a final version that goes back to Trump’s desk for his signature later this year.
Note, this is different to the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017, which was signed by Trump on March 21. That kept the budget for the agency at $19.5 billion for the fiscal year 2017.
Back in March, we had our first glimpse of what Trump had in store for NASA’s next year. He proposed funding a mission to Europa but canceling a possible Europa lander, scrapping NASA’s Education Office, getting rid of a proposed mission to send astronauts to an asteroid, and terminating a few climate programs.
That’s now been confirmed in this more detailed budget. The Europa Clipper would receive $425 million, with a further $1.63 billion proposed for the next five years. This mission will aim to work out how thick the ice sheet of Europa is, and whether its ocean underneath might be habitable. Some had called for a lander to be included on the mission, but this budget would scrap that.
The big loser in this budget proposal is NASA’s Education Office, which would be scrapped after a transition period costing $37 million. This branch of NASA received $115 million in the last budget, and among its purposes, it gives money to students to help them get jobs in aerospace, in addition to financial aid for minority colleges.
“At a time when talent is desperately needed for STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics] jobs across the country, we should be enabling and encouraging minority students to pursue careers in STEM fields,” a group of senators wrote in an open letter to the Trump Administration last week.
In a statement yesterday, NASA’s Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot said they would remain “as committed to inspiring the next generation as ever” despite the cuts. As Miriam Kramer noted for Mashable though, it takes “more than inspiration to get kids interested in science. It takes access.”
The other big loser is climate science. The budget would terminate the Carbon Monitoring System, which NASA has run since 2010 to monitor the evolution of global carbon sources. It would also eliminate five Earth science missions, including the Earth-viewing program DSCOVR and two satellites that have not yet been launched, PACE and OCO-3.
The budget does, however, propose the largest funding of planetary science (planets other than Earth) ever, coming in at $1.93 billion. This is an increase of more than $400 million from Obama’s request for 2017.
Human exploration, meanwhile, would see cuts across the board including the Orion spacecraft and Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, although The Planetary Society notes it's likely Congress may boost funding for these. Up for the chopping block though is the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), a proposal to move an asteroid into lunar space and have asteroids visit it next decade.
This latter cut reaffirms some fears that NASA’s human exploration lacks direction at the moment. The ultimate end goal is Mars in the 2030s, but the path there isn’t too clear. Recently, NASA has suggested it may build a space station in lunar space, which would act as a staging outpost to prepare for the journey to Mars.
There’s been ambiguity from the Trump Administration on this, though, particularly as NASA doesn’t yet have a permanent Administrator. A request to NASA to perform a first manned flight of its Orion spacecraft in Trump’s first term was rebuffed earlier this month, with the agency still working towards a 2021 timeline, but what will happen next is anyone’s guess.
There are winners and losers in every NASA budget, even before Trump’s time. The loss of the Education Office and several key climate missions is pretty significant this time around, though, and suggests Trump is following through on his promise to make NASA focus more on other worlds and less on Earth.
We’ll have to wait and see what Congress makes of the budget. But with the Republicans controlling both houses, there might not be too many drastic changes before it is signed into law.