President Requests $18.5 Billion for NASA, How Will Congress React?

President Requests $18.5 Billion for NASA, How Will Congress React?

President Obama submitted his FY2016 budget request to Congress today.  It includes $18.5 billion for NASA, a 2.9 percent increase over the FY2015 appropriated level, which itself was a half-billion increase over the President’s request for FY2015.  In less than 12 months, NASA’s budget fortunes have improved considerably though, predictably, not enough to satisfy everyone.  Also not surprisingly, the President’s request has not been welcomed with open arms by everyone in Congress, though statements today focused more on the overall request, not specifically that for NASA.

Those who see the glass as half empty point to the fact that the President decided to ignore the budget caps put in place by the 2011 Budget Control Act, and requested a 6 percent increase for research and development spending across the federal government.  They see the 2.9 percent increase for NASA as too small.  On the other hand are those who see the glass half full, a decided improvement over what the President requested last year ($17.460 billion) and what the White House projected last year would be the request for FY2016 ($17.635 billion). has a free fact sheet summarizing NASA’s FY2016 budget request and identifying four of the top issues likely to arise as Congress considers it.  In brief, they are:

  • Earth Science.  The request of $1.947 billion is a $174.8 million increase over FY2016.  Some of that — though NASA officials could not say today how much — is because the Administration is proposing that some NOAA satellite activities be transferred to NASA.  One is the Total and Spectral Solar Irradiance Sensor (TSIS-1).  NASA also is requesting funds for a “multi-decadal sustainable land imaging program” that includes money to build the next Landsat satellite (Landsat 9) for launch in 2023; a separate free-flyer for an infrared sensor for launch in 2019; and funds for technology development and system innovations to reduce the costs of Landsat 10 and beyond.  Such an increase for earth science may encounter opposition from Members who are climate change skeptics and see little need for government programs in this area, or who think that NOAA should not shift its responsibilities to NASA.
  • Planetary Science.   The request of $1.361 billion is a decrease of $76.6 million from the FY2015 appropriated level and includes only $30 million for a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa.  Planetary science is very popular on Capitol Hill and any decrease is likely to be met with opposition.  The new chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), is an ardent supporter of planetary exploration and Europa in particular.   He has led efforts to add money to NASA’s budget for Europa.  Congress provided $100 million for FY2015, an increase of $85 million above NASA’s request.
  • Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).  NASA continues to struggle to convince the space community and Congress of the value of ARM.  The NASA Advisory Council is asking pointed questions about the cost of ARM and its relevance to NASA’s long-term goal of sending humans to Mars.  NASA has missed self-imposed deadlines for choosing between two options for implementing ARM:  Option A (move a small asteroid to lunar orbit) or Option B (pluck a boulder from a large asteroid and move that to lunar orbit).  NASA Chief Financial Officer David Radzanowski revealed today that the Mission Concept Review (MCR) for ARM has been delayed by at least a month, from the end of February to the end of March, and he does not know when the Option A versus B decision will be made.  It could be made days from now, at the MCR, or afterwards he said, he simply does not know.  The FY2016 budget request includes $220 million for the “Asteroid Initiative” of which ARM is part, though Radzanowski stresses that most of that money is “leveraged,” meaning that NASA would spend it anyway, even if there was no ARM.   Our FY2016 NASA Budget Request fact sheet includes a table showing where the ARM money is in the NASA budget, which is difficult to track because ARM is not a program with its own line item in the budget; the money is spread across three of NASA’s four mission directorates.  
  • Space Launch System/Orion/Commercial Crew.   Once again, NASA is requesting less for SLS/Orion than Congress appropriated, and more for commercial crew than has been requested in the past.   NASA and Congress have had a tense relationship over these programs since a compromise was reached in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act wherein Congress would fund both the commercial crew program proposed by the Obama Administration to build commercial systems to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station in low Earth orbit (LEO), as well as a new NASA-developed crew transportation system — SLS and Orion — to take crews beyond LEO that Congress preferred.  Congress insists that the Obama Administration favors commercial crew over SLS/Orion and routinely adds money for SLS/Orion and cuts funding for commercial crew.  This year’s request for commercial crew is $1.244 billion, a substantial increase over the $805 million appropriated for FY2015.   NASA explains that full funding is needed to pay for the milestones its two contractors, SpaceX and Boeing, are expected to meet through the end of FY2016 and if Congress does not provide the funds, the fixed-price contracts will have to be renegotiated.  In that event, NASA says, it cannot promise that the systems will be available by the end of 2017 as currently planned.

More information on these issues in available in our fact sheet.

House Science Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) said he was disappointed the NASA request does not adequately support programs to take us to “destinations like Mars” and includes “costly distractions, such as climate funding better suited for other agencies, and an asteroid retrieval mission that the space community does not support.”

House SS&T Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) did not mention NASA in her statement about the budget, but said she is pleased with the 6 percent increase in funding for R&D across the government.

Senator John Thune, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, also did not mention NASA or other agencies.  Instead, he criticized the President’s request overall as clinging to the “same old failed top-down economic policies of spending increases and tax hikes…”

On the appropriations side, Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee, and Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, each rejected the request out of hand. Neither mentioned NASA or any other agency, but reacted to the budget proposal overall.  Shelby called it “unserious” and called for a balanced budget.  Rogers called on Congress to “reject this irresponsible budget plan.”   The Ranking Member of the House Appropriations Committee, Nita Lowey (D-NY), praised many aspects of the request, but the only scientific area she mentioned was biomedical research.  

Clarification.  Sen. Shelby chairs the Senate Appropriations CJS subcommittee, not the full committee as earlier wording in this article suggested.

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.