President Donald Trump's budget requests are out now, and while some key NASA programs are on the chopping block, strangely enough, it could have been so much worse.
Trump didn't slice into NASA's budget as brutally as he went after the Environmental Protection Agency and a several other federal entities. The budget request submitted for fiscal year 2018 provides the federal space agency with $19.1 billion, about $200 million less than NASA got in 2016.
Of course, considering the cuts the president's proposed budget makes in various areas, NASA didn't come out of this unscathed. These budgets are created by NASA submitting an initial request to the White House Office of Management and Budget. Then the OMB revises it based on what the president is after and kicks it back to NASA which has to subsequently figure out how to make the revised budget work.
With Trump's first budget proposal for NASA, the knives came out for certain NASA projects, including the Asteroid Redirect Mission, the plan hatched during President Barack Obama's administration to go lasso an asteroid, haul it into the moon's orbit and then send astronauts to land on it. Some of the cuts come across as seemingly arbitrary, like how the plan to land on the icy surface of Europa, Jupiter's moon, has also been cut, although Europa Clipper, the fly-by mission, is still on.
Meanwhile, the human spaceflight program was left as-is, which means NASA will not be refocusing on taking another moonshot, but still intends to send astronauts to Mars by the 2030s. The budget also stays the course on NASA's partnerships with the commercial space industry, describing the current “public-private partnerships as the foundation of future U.S. civilian space efforts.” Commercial space companies will help NASA officials handle issues like dealing with the International Space Station, maintaining clusters of satellites and developing deep space habitats, the budget claims.
In other words, when it comes to the space exploration side of NASA, some key missions are getting axed but everything else is pretty much staying the way it was under Obama.
NASA's planetary science program is slated to get $1.9 billion, a decent increase from the $1.6 billion budget in the present year. But while NASA will get more funding to study other planets, the Earth science will see its budget cut from $1.9 billion to $1.8 billion. On top of that, Trump's budget will end a bunch of NASA's Earth science initiatives from the carbon monitoring program to Deep Space Climate Observatory that takes pictures of Earth from space. The satellite was only launched back in 2015.
NASA's education funding, which was about $115 million last year, will be completely eliminated under this budget request. The budget proposal justifies this move by explaining that the agency's education office has never managed to be effective so they aren't exactly yanking education funding so much as allowing NASA's Science Mission Directorate to be solidly in control of the agency's educational programs.
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Overall, the budget request is about what you'd expect from Trump's White House. As we've noted before, Trump didn't have a particularly fleshed out space policy during the presidential campaign and has yet to articulate a vision since then. After all, last month Trump asked NASA officials to consider using the first test launch of the new crew capsule, Orion, atop the new heavy lifting rocket, the Space Launch System, to send an actual crew around the moon.
That may sound perfectly reasonable, but keep in mind that traditionally the first test flight of spacecraft is done without astronauts, given that the loss of millions of dollars of equipment in an accident is bad enough without human casualties.
NASA hasn't decided either way on Trump's moonshot idea. (Although since there doesn't seem to be any money in the proposed budget to allow the agency to change its plans and make that test launch a manned lunar mission, so that may be all the answer that is actually required.)
Of course, this is just the presidential proposed budget. Next up, Congress gets to take a crack at it as that august body is charged with actually signing off on the final budget for 2018, which should happen sometime later this year. Who knows what the budget will actually look like once both the House and Senate have at it?