White House proposes $19.1 billion NASA budget, cuts Earth science and education

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Updated 5:30 a.m. May 24.

WASHINGTON — The White House’s fiscal year 2018 budget proposal seeks to cancel five NASA Earth science projects and confirms plans to shut down the agency’s education office as part of more than $560 million in cuts from 2017.

The proposal, released May 23, offers $19.092 billion for NASA, $561 million less than what the agency received in a fiscal year 2017 omnibus spending bill enacted earlier this month. That amount matches values in a leaked spreadsheet last week, indicating cuts to NASA science, exploration, space operations and other major accounts.

“At $19.1 billion, we have a very positive budget that retains the same parameters we saw in March, and which reflects the president’s confidence in our direction and the importance of everything we’ve been achieving,” NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot said in a statement.

Lightfoot, in a “State of NASA” speech at NASA Headquarters May 23, emphasized in his address the overall continuity in the budget request, which continues major science and human spaceflight programs with modest funding changes. “What this budget tells us to do is keep going, keep doing what we’ve been doing,” he said.

However, one key senator criticized the overall request. “The spending plan simply does not go far enough for NASA or for various space centers,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, during a statement at the beginning of a May 23 hearing by the committee’s space subcommittee on regulatory issues.

“There are some positive elements, like full funding for commercial crew, and some not-so-positive elements, such as the cuts to Earth science, education and to exploration,” he noted, saying that he expected members of Congress of both parties would work together “to make sure the agency gets what it needs.”

Earth science cuts

The budget proposal includes $1.754 billion for NASA’s Earth science program, a cut of $167 million from what it received in 2017. Administration documents noted that included a savings of $191 million by cancelling five Earth science instruments and missions deemed low-priority.

“The proposed termination of these five missions restructures the NASA Earth science portfolio within the available budget in a way that causes the least impact to NASA’s ability to execute a balanced, comprehensive Earth science program that meets the highest priorities of the science community,” the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) said in a document outlining overall reductions in the federal budget request.

The White House identified four of the projects in its budget blueprint, issued in March: the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) satellite, the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) Pathfinder and the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) 3 instruments for the International Space Station, and Earth-viewing instruments on the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), launched in 2015.

The fifth project, not previously mentioned, is the Radiation Budget Instrument (RBI), which would have flown on a future weather satellite to measure the Earth’s reflected sunlight. The measurements RBI would have made can be provided by other existing and planned missions, the document stated, adding that RBI has also experienced cost growth.

“The terminations are due to budget priorities and the need to adjust agency’s budget to match the nation’s current fiscal position,” Andrew Hunter, the acting chief financial officer at NASA, said in a May 23 media briefing about the budget proposal.

Hunter didn’t specify why those particular missions were selected for cancellation, beyond the “schedule and technical difficulties” with RBI. “It becomes a matter of priorities, and it was a budget-related decision,” he said of the decision to cancel RBI.

Closing NASA’s Office of Education

The budget also includes plans to close NASA’s Office of Education, providing $37.3 million for closeout and transition costs. “The Office of Education has experienced significant challenges in implementing a focused NASA-wide education strategy, including challenges in providing oversight and integration of Agency-wide education activities,” the OMB document stated. It added that what data that was available about its activities “has been insufficient to assess the impact of the overall Office of Education portfolio.”

“There are still some hard choices that we had to make,” Lightfoot said in his address. “We just can’t do everything that we want to do, but we can do a lot.”

Hunter, in the media teleconference, reiterated the request’s criticism of the lack of focus of those education programs. “We have experienced significant challenges in implementing a focused NASA-wide education strategy,” he said. “I think this program was seen as vulnerable because it had some challenges in defining its outcomes for the dollars spent.”

Both Lightfoot and Hunter said that education programs would continue, but under a different organization. Hunter noted that education programs funded by NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, to support its missions, received a $10 million increase in the budget request.

No funding, though, would be provided for existing programs with the education office, such as Space Grant and the Minority University Research and Education Program. Hunter acknowledged that Congress may override that decision. “We anticipate that the Hill will appropriate back in ’18 something related” to those programs, he said. “We will find a way to manage it effectively within an account in NASA.”

ARM and Restore-L

The budget confirms plans to cancel the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), while retaining some of its key technologies. “While we ended the Asteroid Redirect Mission going forward, we will take those technologies, with solar-electric propulsion as probably the best example, and move forward with them and morph those into a different mission,” Lightfoot said in his speech.

The budget also provides no funding for Restore-L, a satellite servicing mission that received $130 million in the fiscal year 2017 omnibus spending bill. Restore-L planned to develop technologies that would initially be used to refuel the Landsat-7 satellite.

The program will continue, at a lower level, as part of a satellite servicing initiative in NASA. “NASA will transition the Restore-L project to reduce its cost and support a nascent commercial satellite servicing industry,” the budget request states, “In addition, the project supports technologies that will enhance and enable future science and exploration missions.”

Hunter said that new satellite servicing program would receive $45 million in 2018. “We are committed to the actual technology. We’re just doing it at a lower level,” he said.

Planetary increases and flat budgets

Other reductions in the budget request were planned. Declines in funding for the James Webb Space Telescope and commercial crew programs in the 2018 request match past projections for reduced spending for them as they approach completion.

Some programs got increases. Planetary science, which received a record-high $1.846 billion in 2017, would get $1.93 billion in the request. That includes $425 million for a Europa orbiter mission, but with the provision that the money not be used for a follow-on lander.

“The budget provides no funding for a multi-billion-dollar mission to land on Europa that was not in the last Decadal Survey and would send another flagship mission to Europa before analysis of the Europa Clipper data is completed,” a NASA budget document stated, referring to the 2011 planetary science decadal survey that did not identify a lander mission among its highest-ranked large, or flagship, missions.

Hunter said that work would continue on the Europa lander mission through fiscal year 2017, using the funding and direction provided by Congress. That includes a mission concept review in June and initial plans to solicit instruments for the mission. However, the administration is not seeking funding for the lander in 2018 or future years.

The budget request’s “outyears,” or projections for funding from fiscal years 2019 through 2022, are flat, keeping the agency at $19.1 billion with few changes within that budget among the various accounts. That constrains NASA’s ability to carry out some future missions, Hunter said. The budget, he noted, includes no funding for robotic Mars missions beyond the 2020 rover, such a proposed orbiter mission that would launch in 2022 and thus would need to be started soon.

The flat budget also would prevent NASA from launching the Europa Clipper mission in 2022, as mandated in previous appropriations bills. “We do not have the budget to launch it in 2022, especially due to flat budgets in the outyears,” Hunter said.

The NASA budget document states that flat budgets would instead support a Europa Clipper launch in the mid to late 2020s, but does offer a higher funding profile that would support a 2022 launch. In that higher profile, the mission would receive several hundred million more dollars in 2019 through 2022 to support the earlier launch.

Flat budgets, Hunter said, also affected NASA exploration plans, such as development of a Deep Space Gateway in cislunar space that the agency has proposed for the mid-2020s. “It’s one area where we are somewhat inhibited by a flat budget with no inflation,” he said. “For the next budget, my goal is to get some inflation built into it.”

Budget Proposal (values in millions of dollars)

Account FY17 Omnibus FY18 Request Difference
SCIENCE $5,764.9 $5,711.8 -$53.1
– Earth Science $1,921.0 $1,754.1 -$166.9
– Planetary Science $1,846.0 $1,929.5 $83.5
– Astrophysics $750.0 $816.7 $66.7
– JWST $569.4 $533.7 -$35.7
– Heliophysics $678.5 $677.8 -$0.7
SPACE TECHNOLOGY $686.5 $678.6 -$7.9
AERONAUTICS $660.0 $624.0 -$36.0
EXPLORATION $4,324.0 $3,934.1 -$389.9
– SLS $2,150.0 $1,937.8 -$212.2
– Orion $1,350.0 $1,186.0 -$164.0
– Ground Systems $429.0 $460.4 $31.4
– Exploration R&D $395.0 $350.0 -$45.0
SPACE OPERATIONS $4,950.7 $4,740.8 -$209.9
– ISS $1,490.6
– Space and Flight Support $835.0
– Commercial Crew $1,184.8 $731.9 -$452.9
– Crew and Cargo $1,683.2
EDUCATION $100.0 $37.3 -$62.7
SAFETY, SECURITY, AND MISSION SERVICES $2,768.6 $2,830.2 $61.6
CONSTRUCTION $360.7 $496.1 $135.4
INSPECTOR GENERAL $37.9 $39.3 $1.4
TOTAL $19,653.3 $19,092.2 -$561.1