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Casey DreierMarch 23, 2017

Here's our exhaustive guide to Trump's 392-word NASA budget

Breaking down the first budget outline for NASA in the Trump Administration

The Trump White House released its so-called "skinny budget" last week, providing an outline of the funding priorities of the new administration for the coming fiscal year 2018. This budget would decrease total spending slightly by accepting sequester limits first imposed in 2013. However, within these limits it would shift $54 billion to the Department of Defense (DoD) from non-defense federal agencies. In essence, the DoD would break through the agreed-upon spending cap at the expense of nearly every other agency in the government.

These cuts hit the State Department, Environmental Protection Agency, and National Institutes of Health (NIH) particularly hard. The NIH, which funds basic medical research across the country, was singled out for an eye-popping $5.8 billion (20%) cut. To put that in perspective, that's as if the National Science Foundation's entire budget disappeared overnight. The Department of Energy's Office of Science, which funds fusion, dark energy, and particle physics research, would lose nearly a billion dollars. The United States Geological Survey would lose 10% of its budget. The National Science Foundation was not specifically mentioned in this budget outline, but it would likely receive on the order of a 10% cut.

Make no mistake: the U.S. science community—particularly in the areas of health, energy, geology, and environmental research—will suffer if this proposal is enacted.

But relative to the dismal news throughout the rest of government and the scientific community, NASA did well. The space program would still be cut, but the amount is much less than many other agencies. It stands to lose 0.8% relative to 2016, down about $200 million from $19.3 billion.

The Trump budget blueprint for NASA is only two pages long and is primarily a list of programmatic highlights. The full President's Budget Request won't be released until May of this year; however, we can take a close look at each of the highlights to discern possible priorities for the new administration and space.

We'll start with the first bullet point and work down from there.

SpaceX Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon on pad 39A

SpaceX

SpaceX Falcon 9 and Crew Dragon on pad 39A
SpaceX's Crew Dragon spacecraft will launch from Kennedy Space Center's pad 39A, which was formerly used for space shuttles.

It begins with some fairly bland language about commercial crew and cargo, though we do not yet know what will be expanded in this new budget. The deep-space habitation and exploration systems references are likely referring to NASA's NextSTEP-2 program, which funds studies for cis-lunar habitats. Seven companies, including a number of "new space" groups like SpaceX and Bigelow Aerospace, are currently working on concept designs. It will also be interesting to see the details of how the upcoming budget will increase commercial opportunities for ISS operations. The line about supporting commercialization of new space technologies sounds like NASA's existing Small Business Technology Transfer program.

This represents a $16 million cut from 2016 levels, and is significantly below the $846 million projected for Aeronautics in 2018 by the Obama budget last year. This likely means that the proposed "21st Century Clean Transportation Plan" for NASA's Aeronautics directorate, which would have been a $3.7 billion, 10-year initiative focused on increasing energy efficiency, is no longer a focus of the agency. This program has yet to begin (it was proposed for FY 2017) and required the use of "mandatory" revenue from new taxes to pay for this and many other initiatives throughout government, which was a political non-starter and never seriously considered by the Republican-led Congress.

Europa Clipper concept

NASA / JPL-Caltech

Europa Clipper concept
NASA's Europa Clipper mission would launch as early as 2022 and assess the habitability of Europa, paving the way for a future separate lander mission.

This is undoubtedly the bright spot in this budget request. NASA's Planetary Science Division is entering a rebuilding phase after years of political battles over White House-led budget cuts, which upended the steady pipeline of new mission development. The majority of planetary exploration missions are operating well past their design lifetimes, and there are very few missions that will be launching in the next few years. An increased Planetary budget now will pay its dividends in the 2020s, allowing the development of new missions to Mars and Europa, as well as two new missions in the low-cost Discovery mission line. It is very possible that this budget increase allows the Europa Clipper to plan for a 2022 launch date while maintaining the existing programmatic balance of planetary missions.

It is not clear if the statement about "less expensive satellites" refers to the Discovery program or interplanetary cubesats, but either would be a welcome investment.

The lack of a Europa Lander is a disappointment, and I would expect to see pushback by Congress on this. Programmatic balance is a legitimate concern, however, and we need more information to determine how a lander could be properly phased into the future budget as not to  edge out other important science missions in our solar system. This mission is far from dead.

SLS pierces the clouds

NASA / MSFC

SLS pierces the clouds
The 70-metric-ton version of NASA's Space Launch System pierces the clouds in this artist's rendering.

Well, farewell to ARM. The much-maligned, much-delayed, and politically divisive effort to meet President Obama's goal of sending humans to an asteroid in the 2020s would end unless Congress takes action to preserve it. And that is unlikely given the stated skepticism from Republicans in the House of Representatives and a lack of strong supporters anywhere else.

However, NASA was not planning to spend much on ARM in 2018, and many of the core technologies it was meant to demonstrate (particularly large-scale solar electric propulsion) remain important for future exploration efforts. John Culberson (R-TX), the Chair of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, expressed some reservation about the loss of ARM due to the importance of its associated technologies. I find it unlikely the mission itself will survive, as it had already slipped to a late 2020s rendezvous timeframe and had its costs grow to nearly $2 billion for the robotic boulder-capture spacecraft.

The wording in this budget outline is ambiguous, so it's hard to tell if the $3.7 billion referenced above is only for the SLS, Orion, and ground systems (which would put it in line with the amounts proposed in 2017 by the House and Senate funding bills) or if this number is for all of NASA's Exploration Division, which includes Exploration Research and Development funds. The latter case would put the Trump budget for Exploration squarely in the middle between recent Obama budget proposals and Congressional appropriations bills. Either way, it looks as if the SLS/Orion program funding levels will begin to converge between the White House and Congress. Programmatically, however, the future uses of SLS/Orion remain murky, especially given the line regarding how NASA is going to investigate approaches to reduce exploration costs (which is usually easier said than done). NASA is now studying the idea of launching humans on the first SLS test flight in late 2018/early 2019 in order to have a major human spaceflight milestone occur during the President's first term, but I imagine this would add significant cost and push the first launch date back an unpleasant amount.

Earth Western Hemisphere from DSCOVR, Nov. 8, 2016

NASA EPIC Team

Earth Western Hemisphere from DSCOVR, Nov. 8, 2016

If you had told me the day after the election that the Trump White House would propose to fund Earth Science at $1.8 billion in FY 2018, I would have thought you delusional. The Trump campaign published an op-ed proposing to excise the Earth Science Division from NASA, and the administration has demonstrated a deep hostility to climate science in its move to gut the EPA, undo emissions restrictions in automobiles, and roll back environmental regulations that would reduce the United States' carbon emissions.

So what we see here is not the worst-case scenario (though there could be a lot of problems included in the carefully-worded phrase "focused, balanced Earth science portfolio" used in this document). But, as far as we can tell, NASA's Earth Science Division is not gutted in this budget. Far from it. And while it represents a cut from 2016 levels, $1.8 billion would still be a greater budget than Earth Science received in 2015. And to put this in even more context, the proposed cut is smaller, both in percentage and in dollar amount, than those proposed to NASA's Planetary Science Division each year during the past five years. My point here is that this cut is small enough to be eminently fixable by Congress.

But the unsettling nature of this proposed cut is not the dollar amount, it's the focus. The Trump administration targets four missions for cancellation, all of which involve climate monitoring.

The missions are:

Again, the consistent theme here is a focus on climate monitoring, and the fact that these missions are singled out, despite being operational, nearly operational, or receiving the endorsement of the decadal survey for Earth Science, demonstrates the Trump administration's priorities regarding the utility of these missions. It's also notable that two of these programs proposed for cancellation would have utilized the International Space Station as a platform to generate science. The NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 includes a "sense of Congress" section that declared the objective of the ISS is to "to pursue a research program that advances knowledge and provides other benefits to the Nation." The President signed that into law earlier this week. This budget's cuts to climate missions undermines that directive.

NASA's Education Directorate develops curriculum materials, provides grants to science museums, assists students and teachers, and works to reach underserved and minority communities to expose them to future careers in aerospace and science. It funds the popular Space Grant program, which distributes funding to every state in the union, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, that distributes grants to students, teachers, and other local institutions. It is a program that is strongly supported by many members of Congress, and consistently receives increases in its budget. NASA's Office of Inspector General has found management problems in this Directorate, so there is room for improvement, wiping it away entirely is not the best corrective action, to say the least.

Notably, since 2013, Congress has consistently decided to fund NASA's Education Directorate above the levels requested by the White House. Wiping away this Directorate entirely is not only terrible optics (not to mention bad policy!) but would undermine some of the most practical returns from investing in space exploration: building up next generation of scientists and engineers in this country.

This budget does not alter the separate education and public outreach program within the Science Mission Directorate, though obviously this would not replicate existing programs that would be lost should this cut go through (which I consider unlikely).

RESTORE-L is a Space Technology mission to demonstrate the feasibility of in-space satellite refueling and servicing, a service of great interest to private industry and supported by the now-retired Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who was the Ranking Democrat on the Senate appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA. It is unclear from this statement exactly how the Trump administration plans to restructure this mission, but the implication is that this mission would receive approximately $42 million in FY 2018, down from the $66 million originally projected.

Though there's very little detail in this statement, the issue of protecting NASA systems and sensitive information has been a focus of Congress and NASA's Office of Inspector General, and not a bad idea. The issue of course, is that this budget outline provides no information on how NASA will go about meeting these objectives, and the past two Presidential administrations have attempted to solve this issue at NASA (and elsewhere in government) with little success.

Takeaways

How should you feel about this budget proposal? Well, the big picture is that NASA did well in the context of dismal numbers for science and overall public investment, and even the Earth Science Division did well in this context. Nevertheless, this budget proposes to fund NASA at a lower level than last year, and it is far below our recommendation of a 5% increase that would support human deep space exploration and science.

How you feel about this in the bigger picture depends more on your personal politics. I will note that, despite a return to sequester level spending caps, this budget proposal will not decrease the U.S. debt in 2018. In fact, it will likely add on the order of $500 billion to the debt, as was projected last year. It is not a budget of necessity—it is a budget of choice that prioritizes military spending over nearly everything else.

However, this proposal does show that the Trump administration considers NASA to be one of its higher priorities outside of military and security spending. This doesn't mean the that NASA has the budget it needs (it doesn't) or that these cuts aren't bad (they are), but the Trump administration has shown favor to NASA in a zero-sum budget situation of their own creation. So that's a good place to be in. It could have been far worse.

The other thing to keep in mind here is that this budget outline is exactly that—an outline. It's missing revenue projections, mandatory spending details (i.e. the biggest part of government spending) and lacks details. Notably absent from this document were budget numbers for Astrophysics, Heliophysics, Commercial Crew, scientific research grants, and the Plutonium-238 restart program. There was no change of direction for the human spaceflight program and no dramatic shifts in policy. That's no surprise, as the coming National Space Council will help define the space policy of this new administration, and rarely do we see major shifts in policy in the first budget released only months after a new administration takes office.

Leaders in Congress have already declared the Trump budget to be dead on arrival, which is likely true in the broad strokes. Congress will write its own appropriations bill to fund NASA in 2018, but remember: in absence of specific congressional direction, the administration's budget request sets NASA policy.

One final piece of information to keep in mind is that Congress has some significant budgetary milestones before we even begin to get into the specifics of the 2018 budget. The government is funded via a stopgap measure that expires on April 28th, and unless Congress extends the stopgap or passes a full 2017 budget, the government will shut down. Already there are going to be highly partisan fights on a variety of funding issues that could derail the budget for non-controversial agencies likes NASA. And the United States is about to reach its overal debt limit, which will need to be raised by a Congress in order to continue borrowing money to pay for approved spending. There will be work to stop the cuts to NASA's Education and Earth Science programs, to protect and grow planetary exploration, and to fund NASA at the levels we recommended in our transition paper (having $20.5 billion in FY 2018 solves a lot of problems here). It's going to be an interesting year.

Read more: Explaining Policy, Space Policy, 1 FY2018 NASA Budget

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Casey Dreier

Director of Space Policy for The Planetary Society
Read more articles by Casey Dreier

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