Casey DreierFeb 09, 2016

First Details of the 2017 NASA Budget Request

We have our first details from NASA’s 2017 budget request by the White House. Fans of NASA’s budget process (I know you’re out there) will find few surprises.

A note on terminology. When comparing requests, we are referring to the President’s Budget Request, which just came out today, and how it compares to the same request that came out last year. Comparing those two provides insight into NASA and Administration policy. When comparing the budget, we are comparing this year’s President’s request to what Congress actually provided to NASA in 2016. That illustrates any friction between congressional and Administration policy, as well as the actual dollar consequences should this budget move forward as proposed (which is unlikely for major programs but likely for many smaller ones).

Last week, I listed the top-three budget lines I would read first, so let’s take a look at those along with other major highlights to follow.

NASA’s top line

The President proposes to cut the space agency by roughly $260 million, down to $19.025 billion in 2017. On the plus side, this represents the highest-ever request from the Obama administration, representing a 2.7 percent increase over their 2016 request. That’s a step in the right direction, though NASA needs to grow, not shrink, if we want it to achieve the goals set out for it by the nation. In the parlance of my previous post, this is closest to the “Most Likely Outcome” I predicted.

Note: we are still working to understand exactly how the President's budget pays for a variety of programmatic initiatives and the implications of Congress's reticence to new tax proposals. See this discussion by Marcia Smith at Space Policy Online for more details. For the time being, however, we will take the budgetary numbers of the President's request at face value.

Planetary Science/Europa

Well, we’re five for five. This is the fifth year in a row that the White House has proposed cutting NASA’s Planetary Science Division.

While every other science division at NASA would receive a funding boost in this budget, Planetary Science, the year after flying by Pluto and confirming flowing water on Mars, earns a $110 million cut.

Now, credit where credit is due. The request is for $1.52 billion, which, compared to previous requests, is a marked improvement and very much a step in the right direction. We’ve been advocating for at least $1.5 billion for this program for years now, and it is satisfying to see this number reflected back in the President’s budget.

But the fact of the matter is that this program has been underfunded for years and needs to rebuild. Congress stepped up and provided $1.631 billion last year, and that number needs to continue to improve in order to position NASA for a spectacular decade of planetary exploration in the 2020s. As expected, most of the cut appears to impact the Europa mission (which would get about $50 million in 2017, down from $175 million in 2016). The Administration is sticking with its intent to launch in the late 2020s. The request tones down some of the optimistic planning for the Europa flyby mission set forth in last year’s budget. NASA runs the numbers to assume an Atlas V launch, not SLS, though SLS is very much under consideration.

In more positive news, all existing missions are funded through 2017. That means Opportunity can keep on roving and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter can keep collecting data through the year. No arbitrary zeroing out of mission budgets here.

Overall, Planetary Science comes closest to my “Glass Half Full Outcome” I predicted last week for the top-line number, and the “Most Likely Outcome” for Europa. Compared to previous years, this isn’t that bad, though obviously we’d like to continue the fantastic number Congress provided in 2016.

The Science Mission Directorate

The Science top line is $5.6 billion—a new high for the Obama administration though just slightly above the amount provided by Congress for 2016.

Earth Science

Earth science cracks the $2 billion mark for the first time, benefiting from roughly a five percent bump over last year’s request. Most of that increase is to accelerate the LandSat 9 satellite from 2023 to 2021. LandSat spacecraft have been continuously imaging Earth’s surface since 1972. LandSat 8 launched in 2013, and LandSat 9 development was formalized during last year’s budget request.


Astrophysics gets an increase of $52 million from 2016, with work on the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope focusing on a mid-2020s launch. SOFIA, the flying infrared observatory which was effectively cancelled in the request two years ago by the White House (and then funded by Congress), is fully funded in this request.


NASA’s solar-studying division landed $699 million, which would be a boost of $50 million over last year’s budget. Solar Probe Plus remains on track for a 2018 launch.

James Webb Space Telescope

JWST funding stays on course with a request of $569 million. This is less than previous years, but matches the planned development needs, so it is not a cut. The multi-billion-dollar successor to the Hubble Space Telescope is still targeting a 2018 launch. NASA announced last week that the primary mirror is now fully assembled.


NASA’s aeronautics division landed $790 million. That’s a 38 percent increase from last year’s request of $571.4 million, reflecting a new strategic plan that allocates funding for experimental X-planes, supersonic, low-noise aircraft, ultra-efficient aircraft, and hybrid electric planes. Much of the boost is directed towards green energy research.

Space Technology

Space Technology gets $827 million—$130 million of which goes to the Restore-L satellite servicing project, which has a tentative launch date of 2020. Congress moved the bookkeeping for this project from Space Operations to Space Technology last year without accounting for the increased cost. The President’s request attempts to restore additional funding back to Space Technology development—a perennial effort that is usually resisted by Congress.

Solar Electric Propulsion, currently being developed for the Asteroid Redirect Mission but useful for many future mission concepts to Mars, would get $66 million of the total amount in Space Technology.


NASA’s human exploration division gets $3.3 billion. Commercial crew and cargo have been moved to space operations, sticking with a change established by last year’s Congressional budget. Of the Exploration total, $1.3 billion is for SLS, and $1.1 billion is for Orion. That’s an eyebrow-raising decrease: the 2015 omnibus allocated $2 billion for SLS. This represents a continuation of the Administration’s approach to SLS/Orion, and is likely to be upended by Congressional action.

Missing from this budget is continued work on the new human-rated Exploration Upper Stage, a critical component of the SLS that will be needed for missions beyond the Moon. The President instead proposes use the Interim Cryogenic Upper Stage for the first launch of humans in the early 2020s. This would require rating this stage for human use, a somewhat costly endeavour, even though it would only be used once or twice.

Space Operations

With the addition of commercial crew development, the Space Operations portfolio now has a budget of $5.08 billion, making it NASA’s most expensive line item. Commercial crew and cargo will get $2.76 billion, continuing to work toward a crewed demonstration flight by both SpaceX and Boeing to the ISS in 2017 (one of the flights will take place in fiscal year 2018). The International Space Station itself would receive $1.4 billion, in line with past spending.

The Deep Space Network, which allows NASA and others to communicate with spacecraft throughout the solar system, is set to receive $180 million. This is in line with previous years, but likely too little to support proposed upgrades to the system.

Asteroid Redirect Mission

The robotic portion of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission receives $66.7 million, with a new target launch date of 2023. That’s a three-year slip from the previous estimates of December 2020, presented at a NASA Advisory Council meeting last April. How this impacts the proposed 2025 crewed exploration of this retrieved boulder remains unclear.

  2016 PBR 2016 Congress 2017 PBR
 NASA 18,500 19,285 19,025
 Science Mission Directorate 5,288.6 5,589.4 5,600.5
  - Earth 1,947.3 1,921 2,032
  - Planetary 1,361.2 1,631 1,519
  - Astrophysics 709 730.6 782
  - Heliophysics 651 649.8 699
 Exploration 3,290.2 4,030 3,336.9
  - SLS 1,385 2,000 1,310
  - Orion 1,096 1,270 1119.8
  - Ground systems 410 410 429.4
 Space Operations 5,247.5 5,029 5,075.8
  - Commercial spaceflight 1,243.8 1,243.8 1,184
  - Space communications 632.4 632.4 612.4
 Space Technology 724 686.5 826.7
 Aeronautics 571.4 640 790.4

Additional reporting for this article provided by Jason Davis.

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