On 20 December 2019, just hours before a stopgap spending measure was set to expire, President Trump signed legislation finalizing the U.S. government's budget for the 2020 fiscal year (FY). This marked the end of an extended budget process that ultimately provided NASA with $22.6 billion, a 5.3% increase over the previous year.
The final legislation rejected every major cut proposed by the Trump Administration, increased funding for popular congressional projects such as the Space Launch System, and underfunded several key administration proposals, including a human-qualified lunar lander and low-Earth orbit commercialization projects.
|2019 Enacted||2020 Proposed*||Final|
|Orion Crew Vehicle||$1,350||$1,407||$1,407|
|Safety, Security, & Mission Services||$2,755||$3,084||$2,913|
|Construction and Environmental Compliance||$348||$600||$373|
All values are in millions of dollars. Directorate/top-level line-items are in boldface, divisions and major projects are in standard formatting; sub-programs are in italics. All major directorates are listed but not all sub-divisions or projects are included here. Due to rounding, entries may not add up to the total budget amounts. *Includes the supplemental FY 2020 budget request released in May 2019.
You can find additional details, including source documents for legislation and various draft proposals at our FY 2020 NASA Budget page.
The Planetary Society advocates within its three core enterprises: planetary exploration, planetary defense, and the search for life. Let's address each area in turn and see how the latest budget advances (or doesn't) these critical aspects of space exploration.
NASA's FY 2020 budget continues a multi-year trend of significant investments in a few key infrastructure items useful for human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit. It also includes modest funding for human-qualified lunar spacecraft development, and historic high levels of funding for robotic planetary science missions.
The highest-profile development in terms of planetary exploration was the surprise announcement that NASA should return astronauts to the lunar surface by 2024. This acceleration of the lunar exploration timetable necessitated an unusual supplemental budget request from the White House to Congress asking for additional money, including $1 billion to begin work on a lunar lander.
Congressional response was mixed in its reaction to the 2024 goal, though it ultimately did approve $600 million to begin work on the lander. This is not a great start for the complex, expensive endeavor to return humans to the lunar surface, but it is the first time in more than half a century that NASA is actively pursuing a lunar landing system for humans. Taking into account the modest funding provided to the Lunar Gateway, a small space station that will orbit the Moon, it's fair to say the 2020 budget represented a significant step in sending humans to worlds beyond Earth—though more in principle than in financial commitment.
Depending on your point of view, the most or least surprising outcome of the 2020 budget process was the $810 million provided above the initial presidential request for the troubled Space Launch System rocket. Frustrations over ongoing delays led NASA to propose foregoing development on an upgraded second stage in order to focus on building the initial version of the rocket necessary for sending astronauts to lunar orbit. Some observers considered this a sign that the mega-rocket's days were numbered given competition by SpaceX and other companies.
Those observers were wrong. The White House almost immediately reversed itself in the face of withering congressional criticism. The supplemental request released just 2 months after the proposed cuts restored hundreds of millions to the program, and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine began emphasizing the necessity of SLS for the 2024 goal. Never subtle, congressional supporters provided the requested funds plus an additional $300 million for the upgraded second stage, bumping the program's total budget to a record $2.6 billion in 2020.
Despite how you feel about the SLS, it represents yet another example of the depth of congressional support for a heavy lift rocket capable of sending humans or robotic spacecraft to destinations deep in our solar system. Compared to the 40 years in which NASA focused solely on sending humans to Earth orbit, this continues to represent progress in establishing the enabling infrastructure for planetary exploration, albeit slowly and at a relatively high cost.
NASA's Planetary Science Division, responsible for robotic missions throughout the solar system, received $2.7 billion in the 2020 budget. That's slightly less than the previous year, which was a record-high. This is a healthy budget that supports all ongoing missions, the continued development of two flagship missions (Mars 2020 and Europa Clipper), two Discovery missions, and the newly-selected Dragonfly mission to Titan.
Congress also approved funds to begin a Mars Sample Return campaign, which will return samples collected by the Mars 2020 rover. ESA recently committed to a significant partnership with NASA on this effort, and it was important that formal planning begin in earnest this year in order to meet a 2026 launch timeline. Mars Sample Return has languished as the unachievable "holy grail" of Mars scientists for decades, and this budget marks a major step in this Arthurian quest.
The current state of the Planetary Science Division budget is impressive, and is the consequence of years of work by The Planetary Society, its members, and other supporters of planetary exploration. It is important to remember, however, that this budget level functionally enables NASA to backfill the program following cuts imposed in the early 2010s. The missions currently in development were essentially those planned a decade ago if the division's budget had proceeded as planned. The past can't change, but the future can, and so far, the restoration of this unique and exciting aspect of NASA's portfolio will enable a bright decade ahead for robotic exploration of our solar system. We must be vigilant in maintaining this growth going forward.
NASA's planetary defense budget grew slightly to $160 million, a record high. The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission was fully funded and remains on track for a 2021 launch and 2022 impact with the moonlet of the asteroid Didymos.
The other major planetary defense flight project, a space-based telescope dedicated to the search of dangerous near-Earth objects (NEOs) received no funding in the presidential budget request for NASA in 2020.
The project has languished in development limbo for years, with Congress providing just enough cash for technology maturation and concept studies but not enough to pursue a mission. NASA had not requested a formal start to the program due to lack of funding given its other science priorities. However, after a major report from the National Academies endorsing the concept, NASA announced its intent to pursue this mission last September.
While the Planetary Society had argued for an aggressive $130 million to jumpstart development of NEO Survey Mission (NEOSM), Congress provided a more modest $35.6 million, similar to previous years. I expect to see further details and a presidential request for funding in FY 2021
The Search For Life
NASA has no "search for life" division or mission flight-line, though it does have a mandate to support astrobiology and does so through targeted scientific grants and missions that address these goals as part of their larger scientific goals. The 2020 congressional budget makes no mention of astrobiology, though it does request small amounts (in the tens of millions of dollars) be spent on icy world surface technology (think Europa and Enceladus) and life detection technology development related to the James Webb Space Telescope.
There are three major flight projects in development that include significant astrobiology components: Mars 2020, Europa Clipper, and the James Webb Space Telescope. All projects are moving forward and receive strong support in this legislation.
Congress once again mandated a Europa lander, this time to launch in 2027, though it declined to provide any additional funding beyond the $195 million allocated to it last year. The Europa lander would be a very exciting step in the search for life, though its overall cost is likely to be high—far exceeding the funds already allocated.
This is a well-rounded budget for NASA that continues a slow-and-steady path forward in multiple avenues. While $22.6 billion represents yet another year of growth, when adjusted for inflation, NASA's purchasing power has now just recovered to where it was at the end of the 2000s.
This is still good news, obviously, but further growth is needed to follow up on the many projects now in development. In particular, Project Artemis likely needs between $4 to $5 billion per year in additional funds to achieve a 2024 human landing on the Moon.