Help Shape the Future of Space Exploration

Join The Planetary Society Now  arrow.png

Join our eNewsletter for updates & action alerts

    Please leave this field empty

Casey Profile Picture Thumbnail

[Updated] An Extraordinary Budget for NASA in 2016

Congressional omnibus increases the space agency's budget by $1.3 billion

Posted by Casey Dreier

18-12-2015 8:00 CST

Topics: Future Mission Concepts, FY2016 NASA Budget

Update Dec 18, 2015: The House and Senate have passed the bill, sending it to the President's desk where it will be signed into law. The post below has been updated to acknowledge this development.

After months of delay, Congress unveiled its plans for funding the federal government in 2016. NASA will fare extraordinarily well. The space agency will receive $19.3 billion—nearly $1.3 billion more than it did last year. This is the same top-line level we proposed back in October. I called it the "everybody wins" scenario. And I admit, it seemed a little fantastical to me at the time. But here we are. Congress went to bat for NASA and pulled out a bigger increase than anyone expected.

So, did everybody win? Almost. Here are some highlights (a full table for comparison is provided below).

Planetary Science

Since 2012, The Planetary Society has been working to reverse the crippling spending cuts proposed, year after year, by the White House. Our goal: restore the budget to at least $1.5 billion per year (the recent historical average) in order to address the top scientific priorities in our solar system. I'm very pleased to report that, in 2016, Congress will provide $1.631 billion for NASA's Planetary Science Division. That's nearly $270 million above the President's request, which would have cut the program from last year (again).

That money allows both the MER Opportunity rover and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter to continue science operations (both were zeroed out in the President's budget proposal). It provides $175 million for the new Europa mission and an additional $25 million for “icy satellites surface technology” development. It directs NASA to develop a lander for Europa. The Mars 2020 rover gets an additional $22 million to keep the project on track. The Discovery (small-class) mission line gets a boost, and production of Plutonium-238, the heat source that powers deep space probes, is fully funded at $15 million.

This is just a fantastic number for the Planetary Science Division. Planetary Society members sent over 120,000 messages to Congress and the White House this year asking for this increase. And after a year of stunning successes by NASA spacecraft at Pluto, Ceres, and Mars, this increase is well earned. To everyone who took the time to write and call: thank you.

Commercial Crew

NASA was pushing this one, hard. It had requested $1.243 billion to keep both Boeing's CST-100 Starliner and SpaceX's Dragon V2 on track to launch astronauts to the International Space Station starting in 2017. From the NASA Administrator to astronauts on the space station, the message was consistent: we need this amount to stay on track. They got it. $1.243 billion for Commercial Crew in 2016.

The Space Launch System (SLS)

Here's what a real congressional priority looks like. The President requested $1.36 billion. Congress will spend $2 billion. That's a $640 million increase above the request for what will be NASA's most powerful rocket since the Saturn V. That's roughly the same amount NASA spends on its Heliophysics science division. The SLS was also baselined as the launch vehicle for the future Europa mission.

Earth Science

The Earth Science Division at NASA is funded at $1.921 billion. That's less than the President's request, though it still represents a $149 million increase over last year's budget.

Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD)

This perennially underfunded mission directorate stands to receive $686 million. That’s $39 million shy of the President’s request, though it represents a $90 million increase over last year’s amount. However, an earmark directs $133 million of the STMD’s budget to be spent on the RESTORE-L satellite servicing project, a program moved over from the International Space Station budget line that will more than consume the increase to STMD this year.

Top level comparison

The Omnibus

This bill is referred to as “omnibus” because it mushes together what would have been twelve separate pieces of legislation into a single, 2,000 page epic. Essentially every part of the government that is not Social Security or health care is funded by this omnibus bill. And if this bill can't get signed into law, the federal government has no money to spend, and the government shuts down. Hence this bill is considered a “must-pass” piece of legislation.

Knowing this, members of Congress attach unrelated policy statements in the bill that, while divisive, are not bad enough to sink the passage of the entire bill. Knowing how many policy riders you can get away with is a fine line to walk, and it was one reasons this bill was in negotiations for so long. Do not be surprised if you read about these policy riders in news stories about this bill. It's one of the reasons why omnibus legislation is generally a bad idea. It provides political cover for unpopular policy.

After a surpisingly muted debate, the bill ended up passing both the Senate and House on Friday, Dec 18th with large bipartisan majorities. Our attention now turns to Februrary, when the President releases his 2017 budget proposal. But for now, we can relax and NASA can move forward with what will be dramatic year for exploration.

See other posts from December 2015


Or read more blog entries about: Future Mission Concepts, FY2016 NASA Budget


Randy Weihs: 12/16/2015 10:32 CST

Awesome! Thank you Casey, Bill Adkins, Jason Callahan, and Planetary Society staff and members for making our voices heard, and for keeping us well-informed about policy matters affecting planetary science. I'm surprised not only by the top-line budget numbers, but also by the dollar amounts allocated to individual programs. How does it turn out that Planetary Science (if the budget is passed) receives more money than either NASA or the individual House/Senate committees approved of in the first place? What role is played by Congressional staff, the committees, and/or the Office of Management and Budget in fine-tuning the proposed budget dollars to arrive at the final numbers? Why would those numbers be bigger than what anybody asked for? (Examples: Planetary Science, and Aeronautics Research.)

Messy: 12/16/2015 11:03 CST

We got the slickest lobbyists we can get, that's how! Without those slick and sleazy lobbyists, we wouldn't have had Dawn or New Horizons or any of those other magnificent robot pioneers. Without our sleezy lobbyists Opportunity wouldn't have gotten to Mars in the first place, much less got the money for lasting this long. Say what you want about lobbyists in general, but give these guys a round of applause!!!! Thanks!

Casey Dreier (Planetary Society): 12/16/2015 12:35 CST

Randy: The October budget deal in Congress paved the way for greater spending on NASA. It set an overall spending level that was an increase over last year. There was just more money to go around, and NASA got a nice chunk of that. With this extra money, proponents in Congress were able to push for additional funding for their favored projects. The OMB is not involved at this stage of the game (they've been working on the 2017 budget request that will come out in Feb).

DarkMadder: 12/16/2015 03:10 CST

What about the James Webb Space Telescope?

Casey Dreier (Planetary Society): 12/16/2015 10:32 CST

DarkMadder: The JWST gets exactly what was requested: $620M.

David Frankis: 12/17/2015 01:48 CST

Casey, the Europa lander: is that meant as an add-on to the Europa mission, or as a separate development? And isn't there a possibility of an ESA lander on the NASA mission, too - how would these relate?

Casey Dreier (Planetary Society): 12/17/2015 05:10 CST

David: it would be an add-on to the current Europa multiple-flyby mission concept. Exactly how it would integrate with this is far from certain. I believe there have been talks between NASA and ESA about a lander, though I don't think anything has been announced publicly one way or another. Also important to note: the language pertaining to the Europa lander is not part of the legislation itself. It's in a complimentary document called the committee report. It's an important, influential document, but it doesn't have the force of law like text in the legislation does. NASA (or the Office of Management and Budget) doesn't have to add a lander. This is just a statement that *strongly* encourages them to do so.

David Frankis: 12/17/2015 05:29 CST

Casey, thank you. Right, so if NASA wants to keep its allies in Congress on side, it would do well to develop the lander.

Joshua: 12/17/2015 05:45 CST

I have to admit this is a bittersweet victory. Although NASA got more funding, congress also used this bill as an excuse to sneak in a more evil version of CISA, essentially giving government agencies free ride to spy on American citizens at will. I almost hope the government does go into a shutdown, just to get CISA removed.

A. Karvajalayas: 12/17/2015 08:21 CST

Dear Folks at Nasa, now it is 50 years since the launch of Pioneer 6. The probe was last contacted 15 years ago. I wonder whether it is still alive and responsive? It is important when developing future long-voyage spacecraft, that they can survive at least half a century, regardless of whether based on the discrete transistor technology or integrated circuits. (Were IC's already used on Pioneer 6-9? I cannot find their technical specs)

Cyrus : 12/17/2015 09:44 CST

Amazing work Casey.

Brian Schmidt: 12/18/2015 11:22 CST

Interesting that SLS might be used for the Europa mission - echoes of Saturn V used for Viking. But does the Europa mission really need that big of a launcher? Maybe it's good though to get something useful out of otherwise wasted money on human spaceflight (human spaceflight should be commercially driven, I think). Regardless, great work by Planetary Society!

Messy: 12/18/2015 03:17 CST

Saturn V wasn't used for Viking, only Skylab.

robertinventor: 12/20/2015 11:51 CST

I'm glad to see the Europa lander is discretionary. I think we need to take care with a lander on Europa, if we design it before studying Europa close up. We only have fairly low resolution images of it, and for all we know it could have habitats for life close enough to the surface for a lander to impact. Or the lander through impact could create a habitat by melting the ice. And none of our space missions to date have been so thoroughly sterilized that they could be landed in a liquid water habitat without a risk of introducing Earth life. The ionizing radiation from Jupiter would be sterilizing for surface life but not if below a meter or so of ice and water. So I think the lander is likely to be tricky to make totally compatible with planetary protection until we know more about Europa. And it is also easier to design a lander once you know more about what you have to study. It might even have geysers like Enceladus in which case the most effective way to examine the interior ocean might be to fly through the geysers rather than land, which is also safest for planetary protection. Maybe we need a Europa low flyby instead, will just have to see what they find out. Geysers from Europa would be harder to spot because of the higher gravity if the material typically all falls back to the surface like an Earth geyser. But may still be high enough to fly through.

Leave a Comment:

You must be logged in to submit a comment. Log in now.
Facebook Twitter Email RSS AddThis

Blog Search

Planetary Defense

An asteroid or comet headed for Earth is the only large-scale natural disaster we can prevent. Working together to fund our Shoemaker NEO Grants for astronomers, we can help save the world.


Featured Images

LightSail 2 and Prox-1
Bill Nye at LightSail 2 pre-ship review
LightSail 2 pre-ship review team photo
Swirling maelstrom
More Images

Featured Video

Class 9: Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune

Watch Now

Space in Images

Pretty pictures and
awe-inspiring science.

See More

Join The Planetary Society

Let’s explore the cosmos together!

Become a Member

Connect With Us

Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and more…
Continue the conversation with our online community!