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Casey DreierDecember 18, 2015

[Updated] An Extraordinary Budget for NASA in 2016

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

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.

Read more: Future Mission Concepts, FY2016 NASA Budget

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Casey Dreier

Director of Space Policy for The Planetary Society
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