NASA’s topline budget will be flat for the foreseeable future — which means an effective decrease in real dollar funding for the agency. As a result, President Trump may see his moon plans come crashing down to Earth.
In mid-December last year, Trump formally announced his administration’s decision to return NASA to the Moon by signing Space Policy Directive 1, an amendment to the 2010 National Space Policy. Echoing Vice President Mike Pence’s call to “renew” the United States’ half-century-old mission to the Moon at the first meeting of National Space Council only a few months earlier, the president joined a long history of commanders in chief setting major space goals from the Oval Office.
At this week’s State of NASA event, Administrator Robert Lightfoot claimed that the agency’s budget request of $19.9 billion for fiscal year 2019 “codifies” its commitment to going back to the moon. But with longer term plans to cap the agency’s budget over the next five years, the administration may be repeating a history of underfunding space exploration.
A quick glance at the history of the NASA budget, accounting for inflation, makes one thing clear: extraordinary missions require extraordinary budgets. After President John F. Kennedy announced his administration’s mission to the moon in a special address to Congress in May 1961, he grew the space agency to an astounding 4 percent of the federal budget, a steep increase during the course of a short presidency.
When President Ronald Reagan announced his plans to build a space station in low-Earth orbit in his January 1984 State of the Union address, it too was followed by a significant boost in NASA funding. In real terms, President Reagan increased the NASA budget by 44 percent during his tenure, the biggest bump since Kennedy.
In 1989, President George H. W. Bush announced his plans for NASA during an address at the National Air and Space Museum on the 20th anniversary of the Apollo 11 lunar landing. The brand new president gave his full support for the Reagan-proposed space station, but also lumped on additional, more abstract goals to go back to the moon and then onward to Mars. Unlike Kennedy’s deadline of completing the moonshot by “the end of the decade,” Bush’s goal suffered from a more vague timeline — not a 10-year plan like Apollo, but “a long-range continuing commitment.” Bush raised the NASA budget by 17 percent in real terms during his time in office; not enough for the moon and Mars programming that he originally proposed in following his 1989 speech, but enough to account for the swelling costs of the space station program.
Bill Clinton is the only modern president since Reagan to forgo the opportunity to change national space policy with a singular major announcement. He did make a significant impact on the future of NASA, however, by accepting a proposal from Administrator Dan Goldin to redesign Reagan’s U.S.-only space station into the ISS, a program in collaboration with Russia and other major space nations.
In his 1994 Address Before a Joint Session of Congress, after the Russians had become a full partner in the ISS, President Clinton described the moment as “promising.” He said that instead of “building weapons in space, Russian scientists will help us build the International Space Station.” During his time in office, Clinton cut NASA’s topline budget by 14 percent in real terms.
Following the 2003 Columbia disaster, in an address at NASA headquarters, President George W. Bush too laid out bold goals for NASA’s future, both during his tenure and beyond. “Beginning no later than 2008, we will send a series of robotic missions to the lunar surface,” he said. He also outlined the goal to develop a new human launch vehicle to both supersede the Space Shuttle and take Americans to deep space by 2008 “and to conduct the first manned mission no later than 2014.”
He promised a billion-dollar increase to the agency to make these plans — the Constellation program — a reality. Although the president kept his promise, the agency’s budget grew only 10 percent when accounting for inflation; a figure that pales in comparison to those presidents with similarly lofty goals that came before him. Of course, NASA didn’t return to the moon by 2008, and the United States certainly didn’t develop another operational launch system to follow the Space Shuttle.
In his 2010 address at the Kennedy Space Center, President Barack Obama called the previous administration’s programming “behind schedule and over budget.” After cancelling the Bush-era Constellation program, effectively ending the vision the former president set in his 2010 address, Obama set forth a new goal for NASA: a plan for deep space exploration, including “landing an astronaut on an asteroid” and sending “humans to orbit Mars and return them safely to Earth” by the mid-2030s. He promised a $6 billion increase in NASA’s budget by the end of his tenure. Six years later, due in part to the limitations imposed by the Budget Control Act of 2011, NASA’s budget actually had a net decrease of 9 percent when accounting for inflation.
President Trump’s 2018 budget request canceled NASA’s funding for the Asteroid Redirect Mission, the foundation of Obama’s vision for sending astronauts to an asteroid. Besides formally redirecting NASA back to the moon, Trump’s budget request for fiscal year 2019 released this week makes other controversial cuts to NASA programs across the board, including the International Space Station, the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), and the Office of Education. Although the topline is a sizeable $800 million increase from last year’s request, the Office of Management and Budget’s plan to freeze funding levels for the following five years is effectively a cut in real terms for NASA funding during the president’s tenure.
When the president signed Space Policy Directive 1, he didn’t include a deadline for landing on the moon, like President Kennedy, or even a broad window like President George H.W. Bush or President Obama. But regardless of the timeline, history indicates that giant leaps in space science and exploration are made successful by big increases in the NASA budget. Presidents who failed to support their major plans in space policy with corresponding increases in the budget saw their programming canceled before seeing the fruit of its labor.
Thomas G. Roberts is a space policy researcher at the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Aerospace Security Project, and host of Moonstruck, a podcast about humans in space.