Policy intentions aside, NASA won't go anywhere with massive cuts to spending
With the election of Donald Trump as the 45th President of the United States, space policy experts and fans alike are trying to grasp the implications for NASA. In the past week, many people have written solid analyses of likely near-term changes, and I recommend reading pieces at SpaceNews, Scientific American, and National Geographic. However, the real problem is that there are not much data to work with. At this point, everything is going to be speculation to some degree.
I want to provide some additional detail to this existing analysis, particularly by looking at the bigger picture budgetary forces that may be buffeting NASA over next four years.
What We Know
Before the election, advisers working with the Trump campaign released twoop-eds late in the campaign that outlined the candidate’s broad space policy agenda. The campaign also provided answers to questions submitted by SpaceNews and ScienceDebate regarding space. The answers and op-eds were general, outlining broad ambitions and stating positive platitudes about the space program. This lack of detail is not unusual for presidential campaigns. But the broad outlines were relatively standard for a Republican candidate: a focus on human spaceflight, deep space exploration, and public-private partnerships. A skeptical eye was cast on Earth science and the duplicate efforts underway to build heavy-lift launch vehicles. Trump himself said that he would “free” NASA from being a low-Earth orbit logistics agency, echoing statements in the published op-eds.
However, we have learned that Robert Walker, who co-wrote the space op-eds for the Trump campaign, has no role on the transition team, and is likely ineligible to serve in the Administration at all since he is a registered lobbyist. It is unclear, to say the least, what this means for the space policy ideas laid out in those op-eds (the other co-author, Peter Navarro, is an economist and not a space policy expert).
One of the concrete proposals in the campaign statements was to reconstitute the National Space Council, which has historically coordinated and defined U.S. space policy under leadership of the Vice President. This idea has received support from the Chair of the House Space Subcommittee. But note that a National Space Council is not in itself a statement of policy—it is effectively a plan to make a plan.
Additional clues can be mined by paying close attention to the the staffing choices made by the Trump Administration and his transition team. It has been reported that Mark Albrecht will lead the transition for NASA. Albrecht is a solid and experienced choice who served as the executive secretary for the George H. W. Bush Administration’s National Space Council and has worked in the space industry for decades (to get a sense of his perspective and experience, you can read his book, Falling Back to Earth).
Beyond that, we have no confirmed staff on the transition team related to civil space. NASA has not yet been contacted by Trump’s team. A NASA Administrator likely won’t be appointed, much less confirmed by the Senate, for many months. There are already several names that are publicly associated with the job, but don’t pay too much credence to those just yet. As the old D.C. saying goes, “those who know aren’t talking and those who are talking don’t know”.
Now let’s look at some specific topics that will certainly be relevant during the next year of transition and the new Administration.
The fate of Earth science at NASA is almost certain to be the most controversial issue facing the space community in the next few years. The division will lose its privileged funding position under a Trump Administration (of all the sciences, it alone has enjoyed consistent growth of its budget under Obama). We don’t know exactly what sort of cuts to expect, or even if there will be an attempt to remove Earth science from NASA’s portfolio completely. But previous statements by members of the congressional Republican majorities, as well as Trump himself, likely guarantee some decrease in funding.
Adding to this uncertainty is that Earth science lost two senior, well-positioned Democrats that have defended it in the past: Mike Honda in the House and Barbara Mikulski in the Senate, both of whom served as ranking member (e.g. top-level) Democrats on their respective Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) appropriation subcommittees that write NASA’s annual funding bills. While both were replaced by other Democrats, these new members of Congress will lack the seniority enjoyed by Honda and Mikulski, and may not even serve on the same committee. It remains to be seen which Democrats will serve as the new ranking members on these committees, and what level of attention they will apply to NASA.
I include this section only because of our members' interest and focus in this science. We just don’t know how planetary science will fare. It was not mentioned directly, though it seems to fit in with the broad goals of exploring deep space. John Culberson (R-TX) will return to Congress as the Chair of the critical CJS subcommittee on appropriations, and he will continue to prioritize NASA’s mission to Europa and (hopefully) Mars exploration and planetary science in general.
NASA is currently on a #JourneyToMars, but the big question is if this journey will survive a new transition. Many Republican space policy experts believe that the Moon is a more promising destination, which could bode poorly for NASA’s Mars ambitions. However, if the Space Launch System rocket and Orion survive into the new administration (and I think they will, since their political support in Congress is very strong), NASA could pivot to the Moon without significant disruption.
However, Mars remains a compelling goal that has the support of major industry partners, SpaceX, and is currently experiencing a high amount of public excitement with movies like The Martian and National Geographic’s new MARS series. If the goal of the Trump space policy is for “human exploration of our entire solar system by the end of this century,” then walking away from Mars doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Regardless, the general attitude from the President-elect has been a repeated commitment for deep space exploration. That’s a positive sign, and either the Moon or Mars would represent an important step for human spaceflight.
Just keep in mind that, at the moment, anything about NASA’s human spaceflight goals (including my own paragraphs above!) are pure conjecture. We should have a better idea over the next few months as staffing and policy goals firm up.
Oh, and the Asteroid Redirect Mission? I predict this mission is almost certainly over, given the House’s proposal to zero out its budget in 2017 and the Senate’s very skeptical stance in recent legislation. Not to mention a general desire of the Trump team to break with Obama Administration priorities.
The Space Launch System and Orion
NASA’s largest and most controversial programs are its Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion multi-purpose crew vehicle. Maligned by many but beloved by Congress, these programs were conceived in the wake of the last Presidential transition that cancelled NASA’s Moon-focused Constellation program. While the Trump campaign’s op-ed on space had oblique references to the SLS in its critique of replicated efforts to design launch vehicles, the basic political case behind the SLS/Orion programs remains as strong as it did in 2010.
For evidence, we can look toward the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2016, a bipartisan Senate bill which has not yet passed into law. It lays down the overall vision for near-term civil space priorities, one of which is the continuation of SLS/Orion and the focus on deep space exploration. The bill was sponsored by Ted Cruz (R-TX), and co-sponsored by Marco Rubio (R-FL), and Bill Nelson (D-FL), among others. Cruz and Nelson are the Chair and Ranking Member, respectively, on the Senate’s science committee. Additionally, the SLS program has enjoyed ongoing support from Richard Shelby (R-AL) who chairs the Senate’s CJS appropriations subcommittee. The House also has demonstrated strong bipartisan support for the SLS/Orion programs as well.
This isn’t to say that the SLS/Orion programs are impossible to cancel—they aren’t. But so far as we know, both of them are still reasonably on budget and schedule for a late 2018 launch. Many of the politicians who wrote those programs into law are still serving in Congress, and a bipartisan bill has been introduced in the Senate that clarifies ongoing support for them. If the Trump Administration wanted to cancel these programs, they would be picking a fight with Congress. Do they want to expend that energy and political capital on this issue? My guess is that they will want to save that for bigger issues that are closer to the new President’s primary agenda.
The Budgetary Big Picture Looks Grim
With the exception of Earth Science, I’m not fundamentally worried about the direction of NASA over the next four-to-eight years given what we know so far. NASA still benefits from being generally non-partisan, and the individuals we’ve seen associated with the transition and potential Administration are competent, committed people.
But this doesn’t necessarily mean NASA is in for an easy future. Despite good intentions, there are some serious headwinds that could buffet the space program given the larger political and monetary implications of Trump’s and congressional Republicans’ agendas.
The U.S. government’s annual budget is approximately $4 trillion, but Congress actively appropriates only about a quarter of that—approximately $1.2 trillion—every year. The other $3 trillion is spent automatically, mainly for social safety net programs. Congressional Republicans have already signaled their intent to cut these expenditures under a Trump Administration to an unknown extent.
Of the $1 trillion of “discretionary” spending, more than half is spent on national defense. Everything else the government does—scientific research, border control, education, environmental protection, federal judges, infrastructure, NASA—comes from this non-defense discretionary amount. This has also been targeted for wholesale cuts by the Trump campaign in order to help pay for their large tax cut. These cuts, along with the reinstitution of the sequester (across-the-board cuts to all federal agencies), would collapse non-defense discretionary spending to its lowest point in modern history.
This budgetary scenario potentially spells doom for NASA and its ambitions. The congressional subcommittee responsible for NASA—Commerce, Justice, and Science—is also responsible for the NSF, NOAA, the FBI, the Justice Department, and Commerce Department, and the Census, among others. This committee receives a fixed allotment of money from the congressional budget committees, and then have to use that amount to fund all of their agencies. If the overall amount of discretionary spending falls, then the CJS subcommittee will likely receive a smaller allocation, and they will have less money available to fund NASA and every other agency within their purview (particularly given the fact that they prioritize basic needs: paying judges, feeding prisoners in the federal penitentiaries, national security programs within the FBI, and so forth). Adding to the mix, the Census, one of the few constitutionally-mandated expenditures in government, will also be ramping up in its funding needs over the next four years, adding even more competition for this limited funding.
With the exception of the Apollo era, NASA’s budgetary increases and decreases have generally tracked the overall amount of discretionary spending. So even with strong Congressional support, NASA would struggle greatly to maintain its current portfolio of missions. It's just math.
Again, this scenario depends on decisions that have not yet been made, and actions not yet taken. It will depend on the size of the tax cut and infrastructure plan, and how much effort is made to pay for it. But the point remains: regardless of rhetoric, if the promised tax cuts and spending cuts come to pass, the next four years will be tough terrain for merely maintaining NASA’s current slate of programs, much less expanding them beyond Earth.