Trump Administration Proposes 12 Percent Boost for NASA

Trump Administration Proposes 12 Percent Boost for NASA

The Trump Administration released its FY2021 budget request today. Reflecting its directive to NASA last year to put astronauts back on the Moon by 2024, the request includes a substantial increase for the agency for FY2021 and accompanying increases for the next several years. The FY2021 request is a 12 percent boost over FY2020. However, the request also again proposes cuts to a number of programs that Congress has rejected in the past, ensuring another intense debate over NASA priorities.

The request for FY2021 and the subsequent four years are shown in this summary chart from NASA budget documentation.

Over the FY2021-2025 time period, it includes $71 billion for the Artemis Moon-by-2024 program, including $21.258 billion for human landing systems (HLS).

During a media teleconference this afternoon, NASA Deputy Administrator Jim Morhard repeatedly referred to the cost of putting astronauts back on the Moon in 2024 as $35 billion.

Some interpreted that as the difference in cost between returning there in 2024 versus 2028, NASA’s previous plan.  A NASA spokeswoman clarified to this evening that is not the case: “The $35 billion is NASA’s investment for all the hardware and associated costs for Artemis I, II, and III in FY21-25. This includes SLS, Orion, the human landing system, Gateway and other associated costs. It is not a delta above the previous plan. The $71 billion for our full Moon to Mars exploration costs includes investments for Artemis IV and beyond, with the $35 billion a subset of that cost.”

During the telecon, Brian Dewhurst, Resource Management Officer for the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, also explained that the budgeted amount for HLS does not incorporate any assumptions about how many contracts will be awarded or how much the companies themselves might contribute. The source selection process is in a blackout period while the proposals are under review.

The budget request again proposes terminating two Earth science missions (PACE and CLARREO-Pathfinder), the Wide-Field Infrared Space Telescope (WFIRST), and NASA’s STEM education programs.  Congress has emphatically rejected these proposals in the past. In addition, NASA is proposing to terminate another astrophysics project, the airborne SOFIA infrared telescope that also is popular on Capitol Hill.  It is a joint effort with Germany’s space agency, DLR.

Key members of Congress reacted very negatively to the proposed cuts to science and education.

Rep. Kendra Horn (D-OK), at a recent subcommittee markup of the 2020 NASA authorization bill.

Rep. Kendra Horn (D-OK), chair of the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, said in a statement that she is disappointed that science and education programs were cut to pay for Artemis.

“I am disappointed to see that the Administration is once again funding its moon program by cutting high-priority science missions and zeroing out education. … While I am pleased to see a 12 percent increase to NASA’s exploration initiative, it comes at a steep price for our students. If we’re going to remain the world’s leader in space exploration, we need to invest in the next generation of rocket scientists, engineers, and astronauts. Our nation’s space program should inspire our students, not defund our classrooms.” — Rep. Kendra Horn

Full committee chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) did not address NASA’s request in particular, but expressed concern generally with the request for science and technology. “While there are bright spots, overall this proposal damages vital parts of our nation’s federal science and technology enterprise….”

Rep. José Serrano (D-NY), who chairs the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that funds NASA, reacted negatively to the science and education cuts not only at NASA, but NSF and NOAA as well. “Predictably, [President Trump] is also proposing again cutting funding for the National Science Foundation, climate change research programs at NOAA and NASA, and educational programs at all of these agencies.  I strongly object [to] all of these proposed cuts.”

Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kansas)

Serrano’s Senate counterpart, Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS), is similarly dismayed.

“If the United States is going to accomplish our shared goal of a Moon landing by 2024, NASA must actively execute a plan of well-defined programs and activities that are both strategic and transparent. While it is encouraging to see a proposed budget that supports returning American astronauts to the Moon, I remain eager to receive sufficient budget details to match our ambitious human exploration goals.

“In addition, I am disappointed the budget would cut STEM education, which plays a vital role in making certain we have the talent to achieve our mission. I look forward to my subcommittee’s oversight hearings in the coming months to discuss the FY2021 budget, the specifics of the five-year Artemis plan and how this budget will ensure our nation’s leadership in the space domain for years to come.” — Sen. Jerry Moran

Apart from the cuts to science and education, the budget request also again proposes deferring development of the more powerful Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) for the Space Launch System.  The same proposal was made last year and was totally rejected by Congress, which added $300 million to continue it.

Another bone of contention between NASA and Congress regarding SLS is whether to use it to launch the robotic Europa Clipper mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa.  Congress has repeatedly mandated in law (not just report language) that SLS be used for Europa Clipper, but NASA insists it could save hundreds of millions by using a commercial rocket instead.

Last year, NASA’s budget request said the saving would by $700 million, but this year it uses $1.5 billion, which is in line with a letter from the White House Office of Management and Budget to Senate appropriators in October.  Nevertheless, the FY2020 appropriations bill requires that SLS be used not only for Europa Clipper, but for a later mission to land on Europa.  Congress has directed NASA to build a Europa Lander, but NASA has not agreed to do so.  This year’s request again does not include it.

What was released today was a request.  Congress determines how much money will be spent and how.  The request tees up what will undoubtedly be another fractious year of budget debates including how much to spend on defense versus nondefense government programs more broadly.

This being an election year, getting any legislation passed will be a challenge and it is widely expected that Fiscal Year 2021 will begin on October 1 with a Continuing Resolution (CR) that holds agencies to their current funding levels.


This article has been updated throughout.




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