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White House Proposes $18.5 Billion Budget for NASA

Updated at 5:45 p.m. EST.

WASHINGTON — The White House is seeking $18.5 billion for NASA in its fiscal year 2016 budget proposal released Feb. 2, including “immediate initiation” of a new Landsat spacecraft and a formal start of a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, but could result in the termination of two long-running planetary science missions.

The overall budget request of $18.529 billion represents a $519 million increase from 2015, when NASA received $18.01 billion. That increase is spread across most agency programs except for aeronautics and education, which would be decreased compared to the fiscal year 2015 funding approved by Congress.

NASA is participating in a new Obama administration multi-decade initiative called the Sustainable Land Imaging program. As part of that program, NASA will start work in fiscal year 2015 on a new Landsat spacecraft, called Landsat 9. Based on the Landsat 8 spacecraft launched in 2013, Landsat 9 would correct “small design flaws” in one of Landsat 8’s instruments. The spacecraft is planned for launch in 2023.

NASA will also work on a spacecraft called the “Thermal-Infrared Free-Flyer” to fill a potential gap in data when Landsat 7 runs out of stationkeeping propellant in 2019. That mission would launch “as soon as feasible, likely in 2019,” according to NASA’s budget documents. NASA also seeks funding in the 2016 request for technology development for Landsat missions beyond Landsat 9.

The 2016 budget proposal also includes the formal beginning of a project to send a spacecraft to Jupiter’s icy moon Europa. However, NASA’s request of $30 million for the mission, while double the $15 million it asked for in 2015, is much less than the $100 million allocated to the mission in the final 2015 appropriations bill.

However, the budget would eliminate funding in 2016 for the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and Mars Exploration Rover Opportunity missions. NASA Chief Financial Officer David Radzanowski told reporters late Feb. 2 that NASA plans to evaluate the operations of those missions this summer. “We will identify potential funds for the potential continuation of operations” if they remain in good condition, he said.

The budget proposal would provide a significant increase to NASA’s commercial crew program. NASA is seeking $1.244 billion for the program, an increase of more than 50 percent from the $805 million it received in 2015. Next year would also be the peak year of projected spending on the program, with spending dropping to $1.18 billion in 2017 and below $1 billion in 2018 and beyond.

Radzanowski said the sharp increase in commercial crew funding was based on the contracts it awarded in September to Boeing and SpaceX to develop commercial crew vehicles. If Congress appropriates less money and the two companies remain on schedule, he said, NASA will have to renegotiate the contracts. “As a result, we can no longer commit to having certified services by the end of 2017,” he said.

NASA’s Orion and Space Launch System programs would, by contrast, lose money compared to 2015. NASA is seeking $1.096 billion for Orion, a decrease of nearly $100 million from the $1.194 billion appropriated in 2015. SLS would lose even more, from $1.7 billion in 2015 to $1.357 billion in the 2016 request. That funding level, Radzanowski said, would keep the programs on track for a first SLS launch by November 2018.

One key member of Congress criticized that reduction. “The president’s words mean nothing if crucial priorities such as SLS and Orion aren’t given the funding they need in his budget request,” said House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), in a statement Feb. 2 that referred to President Obama’s State of the Union address Jan. 20. “This budget provides neither the funding commitment nor the focus to maintain American leadership in space.”

NASA is seeking to restore a cut in its space technology program in 2016, asking for nearly $725 million after receiving $596 million in 2015. That would be offset in part by a cut to NASA’s aeronautics program, which received $651 million in 2015 but for which NASA is requesting only $571 million in 2016.

The budget proposal says little about the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), NASA’s proposal to shift the orbit of a small asteroid into one around the Moon to be visited by astronauts. Funding for the agency’s overall asteroid initiative is spread among the science, human exploration and operations, and space technology mission directorates.

Radzanowski told reporters that the fiscal year 2016 budget request includes $220 million for the overall asteroid initiative at NASA, including $50 million for near Earth object observations and $69 million to develop solar electric propulsion, a key technology for ARM. The remainder of the funds go to work on developing ARM itself, technologies and techniques for the later human mission to the captured asteroid, and NASA’s Asteroid Grand Challenge.

In a speech at the Kennedy Space Center, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden indicated that NASA officials gave yet to make a decision about which of two options to pursue for the robotic mission: moving an entire asteroid up to 10 meters across, or taking a smaller boulder off the surface of a larger asteroid. That decision was due in mid-December but has been delayed. “We will make a decision soon on a capture option,” he said, without offering more specifics.

Radzanowski said the ARM mission concept review, which had previously been scheduled for late February, is now planned for no earlier than late March. There was no schedule for announcing the choice between the two robotic mission options, he said. “It could be happening soon, in the next few days, or it could be happening at the [mission concept review],” he said.

AccountFY15 OmnibusFY16 RequestDifference
– Earth Science$1,772.5$1,947.3$174.8
– Planetary Science$1,437.8$1,361.2-$76.6
– Astrophysics$684.8$709.1$24.3
– JWST$645.4$620.0-$25.4
– Heliophysics$662.2$651.0-$11.2
– Education$42.0$0.0-$42.0
SPACE TECHNOLOGY$596.0$724.8$128.8
EXPLORATION SYSTEMS$4,356.7$4,505.9$149.2
– Exploration Systems$3,245.3$2,862.9-$382.4
– Commercial Spaceflight$805.0$1,243.8$438.8
– Exploration R&D$306.4$399.2$92.8
SPACE OPERATIONS$3,827.8$4,003.7$175.9
– ISSN/A$3,105.6N/A
– Space and Flight SupportN/A$898.1N/A

Amount above in millions of dollars. Credit: OMB/NASA/SpaceNews

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...