White House seeks near-term cuts to NASA and NOAA programs

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WASHINGTON — The Trump administration is asking Congressional appropriators to cut $90 million from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather satellite programs and $50 million from NASA science programs in any fiscal year 2017 spending bills they approve in the next month.

The requested cuts are part of a broader package of nearly $18 billion of cuts in non-defense discretionary spending the White House is seeking in spending bills that Congress must pass by April 28 or risk a government shutdown. News of the proposed cuts was first reported March 28 by Politico.

The 13-page list of requested cuts, dated March 23 and provided by the White House to House and Senate appropriators, proposes $17.935 billion in cuts compared to fiscal year 2016 spending levels. The federal government has been operating at those spending levels since the 2017 fiscal year started Oct. 1 under a continuing resolution that lasts until April 28.

The document requests a $50 million cut in NASA’s science programs, about a 1 percent reduction from 2016 levels. The administration offers few details about the cut, other than they would be distributed among science programs, “including cuts to unused reserves and missions that are cancelled in the 2018 Budget.”

The fiscal year 2018 budget blueprint, issued March 16, proposed cancelling four Earth science missions: 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 the Earth imaging instruments on the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR).

PACE, CLARREO Pathfinder and OCO-3 are all in development, while DSCOVR launched in 2015. NASA, in its fiscal year 2017 budget request in February 2016, requested a combined $47.3 million for CLARREO Pathfinder, DSCOVR and OCO-3 for fiscal year 2017, while PACE was still in its pre-formulation phase at the time of its budget request.

The document suggested other programs beyond Earth science could also be affected by the proposed cut. “It is possible missions would be delayed and/or grants reduced,” it stated, without providing additional details.

The administration’s request also seeks to cut NOAA weather satellite programs by $90 million from 2016 levels. However, the administration’s 2017 budget request had already included a similar decrease, reflecting progress made on next-generation satellite programs, the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellite R (GOES-R) and Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS).

“This level reflects the planned ramp-downs of JPSS and GOES weather satellites, and the ramp-up of the PFO program,” the document stated, referencing the Polar Follow-On program for the third and fourth JPSS satellites. The administration’s fiscal year 2018 budget blueprint suggested it would seek savings from the Polar Follow-On program “by better reflecting the actual risk of a gap in polar satellite coverage.”

The administration also seeks to cut funding for Earth Observing Nanosatellite-Microwave (EON-MW) mission, which would fly a microwave sounder as a gapfiller should there be a problem with a similar instrument on the first JPSS satellite. NOAA requested $10 million for EON-MW, although the project had mixed support in Congress.

NASA officials had no initial comment on the administration’s proposed cuts. Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, was asked about the cut during a presentation at a meeting of the Committee of Astronomy and Astrophysics of the National Academies here March 28. He said he was not aware of the proposal.

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA associate administrator for science, also did not directly address the proposed cut during a planetary presentation at the National Academies’ Space Science Week meeting March 28. He did mention the ongoing continuing resolution funding NASA program until April 28. “At which point, something is happening,” he said. “Either a budget comes out or we go forward” with another CR.