Updated at 6:30 p.m. Eastern.

WASHINGTON — The Obama Administration’s final budget request, released Feb. 9, offers $19 billion for NASA in fiscal year 2017, a decrease of $260 million from the agency’s final 2016 budget, with sharper cuts to the agency’s two major exploration programs.

The $19.025 billion budget, as proposed, would shift some funds from NASA’s Space Launch System and Orion programs to aeronautics and space technology, in addition to the overall cuts, while also move funds within the agency’s science account.

The budget request is likely to face strong opposition in Congress, where House and Senate leaders have already said that the administration’s overall budget request will be considered dead on arrival. Elements of the NASA proposal are also likely to face congressional scrutiny.

“I understand that it’s not necessarily at the profile in some areas that Congress asked,” said David Radzanowski, NASA’s chief financial officer, in a Feb. 9 teleconference with reporters. “This is the administration’s proposal as to how to provide a balanced NASA budget, both for exploration and across other areas.”

The account facing the biggest cut is exploration systems, which would receive $3.3 billion in the proposal, down nearly $700 million from the final omnibus bill. The proposal offers $1.31 billion for SLS, a cut of nearly $700 million from what it received in 2016, and $1.12 billion for the Orion crew vehicle, a cut of about $150 million.

That aspect of the proposal almost immediately generated criticism from industry groups and Congress. “We are deeply concerned about the Administration’s proposed cut to NASA’s human exploration development programs,” said Mary Lynne Dittmar, executive director of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, in a statement. “This proposed budget falls well short of the investment needed to support NASA’s exploration missions.”

“This administration cannot continue to tout plans to send astronauts to Mars while strangling the programs that will take us there,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science Committee, in a Feb. 9 statement about the NASA budget. “This imbalanced proposal continues to tie our astronauts’ feet to the ground and makes a Mars mission all but impossible.”

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, in a Feb. 9 “State of NASA” speech at the agency’s Langley Research Center, made no specific mention of those cuts. “We’ll continue to make great progress on the SLS,” he said, also mentioning assembly of the Orion that will fly on the first SLS launch in 2018.

Bolden at Langley
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden gives his “State of NASA” address Feb. 9 at the Langley Research Center. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden gives his “State of NASA” address Feb. 9 at the Langley Research Center. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Radzanowski said that the budget supports a 2018 launch of the first SLS/Orion mission, Exploration Mission (EM) 1, and a 2023 launch of EM-2. Progress made to date thanks to increased funding, though, could still allow an EM-2 launch as early as 2021.

Although the fiscal year 2016 spending bill directed NASA to work on a new, more powerful upper stage for SLS called the Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) so that it could be ready for EM-2, Radzanowski said the budget proposal assumes the less powerful upper stage flying on EM-1 would also be used on EM-2.

“We are moving forward on Exploration Upper Stage,” he said. “We can’t support it for EM-2 at this budget request.”

Funding Europa

NASA’s science programs would receive $5.6 billion, effectively unchanged from 2016. However, Earth science would get an increase of $111 million while planetary science would be cut by a nearly equal amount. The proposal includes nearly $50 million for a Europa mission, far less than the $175 million appropriated in 2016.

The request for Europa, and the projections for funding for the program through fiscal year 2021, would support a launch of the mission in the late 2020s, much later than advocates for the mission, both in the scientific community and in Congress, would desire. The request also does not assume a launch on SLS, as mandated by Congress in the 2016 spending bill, because of cost uncertainties about the heavy-lift vehicle.

The budget request does include an alternative funding profile that would support a 2022 launch, as requested by Congress. That would require spending $194 million in 2017 and increasing to $678 million a year by 2020. “Acceleration of the launch to 2022 is not recommended, given potential impacts to the rest of the Science portfolio,” NASA’s budget request states. That alternative profile, Radzanowski added, doesn’t include a lander, another Congressional mandate, since its cost is still being evaluated.

Asteroid mission delays

The budget request includes a total of $217 million for various activities associated with the Asteroid Redirect Mission, the agency’s three-year-old proposal to send a robotic spacecraft to a near Earth asteroid and bring back a boulder from it to cislunar space to be visited by astronauts. That request includes $66.7 million for work on the robotic spacecraft, called the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM).

Radzanowski suggested that ARRM may not be ready for launch until well into the 2020s, later than earlier expectations. “We’re looking at a target date in the early to mid 2020s, roughly 2023,” he said, adding that date was notional.

He claimed that this schedule would still allow a crewed mission to the recovered boulder in 2025, the deadline set by President Obama in an April 2010 speech. “It could be earlier than that,” he said of the ARRM launch date. “Don’t get fixated that there’s a delay on ARRM at this point in time.”

Aeronautics and technology increases

Bolden, in his address, made no mention of the cuts to exploration programs and the Europa mission, or the overall $260 million decrease in NASA’s budget. “Because the state of our NASA is strong, President Obama is recommending a $19 billion budget for the next year, to carry out our ambitious exploration and scientific discovery plans,” he said.

One winner in the budget is space technology. The budget proposes $827 million for that program, a $140 million increase from 2016. That funding, according to the fact sheet, would be used for a variety of programs, from satellite servicing to development of solar electric propulsion.

Another winner in the proposed budget is the agency’s aeronautics division. The request offers $790 million for aeronautics, $150 million above what it received in 2016. The request is part of a 10-year, $10.6 billion plan that includes the development of several experimental “X-planes” to demonstrate new fuel-efficient technologies and supersonic flight that minimizes sonic booms.

“It’s largely due to the alignment of our strategy with the administration’s priorities,” said Jaiwon Shin, NASA associate administrator for aeronautics, referring to the division’s strategic plan completed in 2013. “All those efforts are the basis for this increased budget request.”

The requested increase, though, was still a pleasant surprise. Shin said he heard about the proposed increase in an email last month from Radzanowski. “His email subject was, ‘Christmas in January,’” Shin said.

NASA Budget Proposal (in millions of dollars)

AccountFY16 OmnibusFY17 Request Difference
– Earth Science$1,921.0$2,032.2$111.2
– Planetary Science$1,631.0$1,518.7-$112.3
– Astrophysics$730.6$781.5$50.9
– JWST$620.0$569.4-$50.6
– Heliophysics$649.8$698.7$48.9
– Education$37.0$0.0-$37.0
SPACE TECHNOLOGY$686.5$826.7$140.2
– SLS$2,000.0$1,310.3-$689.7
– Orion$1,270.0$1,119.8-$150.2
– Ground Systems$410.0$429.4$19.4
– Exploration R&D$350.0$477.3$127.3
SPACE OPERATIONS$5,029.2$5,075.8$46.6
– ISS$1,430.7
– Space and Flight Support $887.4
– Commercial Crew$1,243.8$1,184.8-$59.0
– Crew and Cargo$1,572.8

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...