Casey DreierMar 22, 2018

NASA wins big in 2018 budget deal

Update 3/23/18 2:24pm ET: After an initial veto threat, the President signed the bill into law. NASA's funding for fiscal year 2018 is officially wrapped up.

Update 3/23/18 12:39am ET: The Senate votes in favor of the omnibus, 65-32. It now goes to the White House for the President's signature.

Update 3/22/18: The House of Representatives just passed the omnibus, 256-to-167.

Last month, Congress reached a broad budget deal that lifted self-imposed spending caps—the "sequester"—for the next two years. Yesterday, we saw the fruit of that deal with the release of the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2018, a bill that would fund nearly all government agencies through the remainder of this fiscal year (which ends September 30). NASA—and science in general—did very well in this legislation. Congress thoroughly rejected every major cut proposed to NASA and other science agencies by the Trump Administration, often providing them with funding increases instead. This is arguably the best budget for national science investment in a decade.

Should this legislation pass, NASA would receive a $1.1 billion increase to $20.7 billion in fiscal year 2018. This is a far better outcome than the White House's original proposal, which would have cut NASA by 1 percent to $19.1 billion. Adjusting for inflation, this is NASA's best budget since 2009, when it received a temporary $1 billion boost from the economic stimulus bill.

And it wasn't just NASA. As Science Magazine points out, every federal science program maintained or grew its budget. The National Science Foundation, NOAA, the Department of Energy's Office of Science—all will receive budget increases. Basically, Congress grew the size of the pie, so nearly everyone was able to take a bigger slice.

Several Planetary Society funding priorities were contained in this bill. First and foremost, the robotic Mars Exploration Program receives a $75 million increase with specific directions to "support the Mars Sample return mission and orbiter", in line with our recommendations and as a consequence of our Mars in Retrograde report released last year.

Planetary defense has been another major area of work for our Advocacy team this year, and we were very pleased to see NEOCam—a proposed space telescope for detecting near-Earth objects—funded at $35 million. While not ideal, this amount will help maintain critical production lines for sensors needed by this mission.

And then there's Europa, the mission The Planetary Society and its members have worked so hard to support over the years. It stands to receive $595 million in 2018, not just for the Clipper spacecraft, but for work on a lander as well. The legislation reiterates that the mission launch in 2022 on a Space Launch System rocket. NASA has stated it wants to launch the Clipper in 2025 on a commercial rocket.

The Planetary Society and its members worked hard for these goals in addition to larger budgets for NASA and science in general. Congress listened, and key members of the appropriations committees really came through for these important priorities. They also explicitly supported the priorities recommended by the scientific community through the decadal survey process—another commendable action and important to a stable future of space science and exploration.

Okay, let's break things down.

Item2017 Obama request2017 Congress approved2018 Trump request2018 Omnibus
NASA TOTAL$19,025$19,653$19,092$20,736
Planetary$1,519$1,846 $1,930$2,228
Astrophysics$782$750 $817 $850 
JWST$569$569 $534 $534 
Heliophysics$699$679 $678 $689 
SLS$1,310$2,150$1,938 $2,150 
Ground systems$429$429$460 $895
Exploration sys subtotal$2,859$3,929$3,584 $4,395
R & D$477$395$350 $395
Commercial crew$1,185 $1,683 
Crew & cargo$1,573 $732  
Space trans subtotal$2,758 $2,415  
ISS$1,431 $1,491  
NASA TOTAL$19,025$19,653$19,092$20,736


Planetary Science Reaches New Heights

These are golden times for planetary science. $2.2 billion is provided to the Planetary Science Division at NASA, an increase of $382 million from 2017. Even adjusting for programmatic consistency and accounting for inflation, this is easily the best budget for planetary science this century. The majority of this increase goes to the Europa Clipper/lander project and the Mars Exploration Program. The Discovery and New Frontiers program lines each see a roughly 10 percent boost. A Mars helicopter that could ride along with the upcoming Mars 2020 rover is funded at $23 million. Planetary science research and analysis—the prime source of funding for planetary scientists across the United States who are not directly involved in a flight mission—grows to $197 million. Every Planetary Society member should be elated with this news.

Earth Science is Preserved

If you had told me a year ago that NASA's Earth Science Division would remain at $1.9 billion, I would not have believed you. This division had been targeted by the Trump campaign for complete removal from NASA, and many members of the Republican majority in Congress have consistently targeted Earth Science for funding cuts. Yet here it is: $1.9 billion for Earth Science, which maintains its historical funding high for the third year in a row. Congressional language released along with the omnibus legislation was blunt, directing funding for the four Earth Science missions proposed for cancellation by the Trump Budget. The fifth, the Radiation Budget Instrument, was cancelled by NASA earlier this year after cost growth of the program.

Surprise! A new Mobile Launcher!

Barely a month after NASA said it was no longer asking for a second launch tower for the Space Launch System, Congress goes ahead and funded one anyway, dumping $350 million to the project in a single fiscal year. The existing mobile launch tower that carries the SLS to the launch pad and provides servicing and crew access is designed only for the Block 1a version of the rocket. In order to handle the planned SLS Block 1b that will launch crew in 2023, the mobile launch tower required upgrades estimated to take nearly three years. But since there is only one launch tower, work couldn't begin until the launch of the first SLS Block 1a in 2020, potentially forcing a delay in SLS launches. Having a second tower will remove this bottleneck and preserve the ability to launch Block 1a versions of the SLS, should they be needed, in the future.

Education Division lives to educate another year

Earlier drafts of this legislation in both the Senate and the House rejected the White House proposal to close down NASA's Education Division. So it was no surprise to see it here, funded at the previous year's level of $100 million.

Even CECR gets something

If you want to understand just how good this budget is, look no further than Construction and Environmental Compliance and Restoration, which received a $202 million boost to $562 million—its highest budget in years. CECR is the main account for building, maintaining, and repairing NASA infrastructure across the country. The additional funding is directed by Congress to address a backlog of repair projects across NASA facilities. It is rare to see increases like this. No one NASA center "owns" infrastructure maintenance, and investment in this effort produces no new products or entities. So it generally receives little attention from advocates, even though it is critical to the overall health and function of the space agency.

The Planetary Fund

Your support powers our mission to explore worlds, find life, and defend Earth. Give today!