BRIEF INTRODUCTION: U.S. Government Civil Space Agencies

The 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to conduct a civil space program, while assigning military space activities to the Department of Defense.

Over the past five decades, other U.S. government agencies have taken leadership roles in various aspects of civil space activities, but NASA remains by far the largest and most visible U.S. civil space agency. Others with significant roles in civil space include:

Other agencies also have roles in the space program. The President submits to Congress an annual Aeronautics and Space Report of the President that provides funding and programmatic information about all U.S. Government agencies involved in space activities. Use the tab Reports|NAS GAO Others|Other Reports for quick links to the Aeronautics and Space Reports for the past several years.


NASA is by far the largest civil space agency in the world, never mind the United States.  It conducts both aeronautics and space activities, although aeronautics is a comparatively small (about $1 billion) portion of its budget. This website is devoted to space policy and thus does not discuss NASA’s aeronautics programs as critical as they are to the nation. For information on NASA’s aeronautics programs, visit the website of NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate.

NASA Organization.  NASA is headquartered in Washington, D.C. and has nine field centers around the country: Ames Research Center (Mountain View, CA); Armstrong Flight Research Center (Palmdale, CA, formerly Dryden Flight Research Center); Glenn Research Center (Cleveland, OH, formerly Lewis Research Center); Goddard Space Flight Center (Greenbelt, MD), which also operates Wallops Flight Facility (Wallops Island, VA), the Goddard Institute of Space Studies (New York, NY) and the Independent Verification and Validation facility in Fairmont, WV ; Langley Research Center (Langley, VA); Johnson Space Center (Houston, TX), which also operates White Sands Test Facility (White Sands, NM); Kennedy Space Center (Cape Canaveral, FL); Marshall Space Flight Center (Huntsville, AL), which also operates the Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans, Louisiana; and Stennis Space Center (near Bay St. Louis, Mississippi).  Many consider the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (Pasadena, CA) as another NASA center, but it is a federally funded research and development center (FFRDC) operated for NASA by the California Institute of Technology. Nonetheless, NASA is usually referred to as having 10 centers around the country, in addition to its headquarters in Washington, D.C.

NASA Budgets.  Tables at the back of the annual Aeronautics and Space Report of the President mentioned above show NASA’s total budget, and budgets for other agencies with space-related expenditures, for every year since FY1959 in both current and constant (adjusted for inflation) dollars. NASA has a budget website with its complete budget requests for each year since FY1999. fact sheets are available that trace NASA’s budget requests beginning in FY2011 as they worked their ways through Congress.  They can be viewed and downloaded from the tab Reports||Fact Sheets.  The summary paragraphs below provide a snapshot of the most controversial issues in each of those years.

From Bush to Obama to Trump.  It has been a tumultuous decade for the agency’s future human spaceflight programs with repeated changes in direction. When President Obama took office in 2009, the nation was embarked on President George W. Bush’s Constellation program to return astronauts to the surface of the Moon by 2020 and someday go on to Mars.  Obama cancelled Constellation and said there was no need to return to the Moon’s surface. He said the goal was humans orbiting Mars by the 2030s with an Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) as a steppingstone by 2025.  The Trump Administration cancelled ARM as one of its first space policy decisions and later restored Bush’s goal of returning humans to the Moon before embarking on trips to Mars.  One change is the Trump Administration’s emphasis on partnerships with international and commercial partners in achieving those goals.

Trump reestablished a White House National Space Council on June 30, 2017.  It is chaired by Vice President Mike Pence and Scott Pace is its Executive Secretary.  It is taking the lead role in formulating Trump space policy for the nation as a whole, including NASA.  (The National Space Council was created in the 1989 NASA Authorization Act and implemented by President George H.W. Bush in an April 20, 1989 Executive Order.  It was chaired by Vice President Dan Quayle.  Presidents Clinton, George W. Bush, and Obama chose not to fund or staff the Council, using the National Security Council and Office of Science and Technology Policy to develop space policy instead.)

The Space Council has met publicly five times:  October 5, 2017 (at the National Air and Space Museum Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles Airport; February 21, 2018 (at Kennedy Space Center, FL); June 18, 2018 (at the White House); March 26, 2019 (at Marshall Space Flight Center, AL); and August 20, 2019 back at Udvar-Hazy.

President Trump signed Space Policy Directive-1 (SPD-1) on December 11, 2017 replacing one paragraph in the Obama National Space Policy regarding NASA’s human spaceflight program.  It restores the goal of returning astronauts to the Moon and eliminates the goal of sending them to asteroid.  On March 23, 2018, he issued a National Space Strategy covering civil, commercial, and national security space activities. He signed Space Policy Directive-2 (SPD-2, regarding commercial space regulation) on May 24, 2018, Space Policy Directive-3 (SPD-3, regarding space situational awareness and space traffic management)) at the third meeting of the Space Council on June 18, and Space Policy Directive-4 (SPD-4, regarding national security space and the Space Force) on February 14, 2019.

At the March 26, 2019 meeting of the National Space Council, Vice President Pence declared that it is U.S. policy to return U.S. astronauts — “the next man and the first woman” — to the surface of the Moon by 2024.  The program has been named Artemis after Apollo’s twin sister.

Obama’s Early Years: NASA’s FY2010, FY2011 and FY2012 BUDGETS

President Obama’s first budget request for NASA was for FY2010.  The request was $18.686 billion.  Final funding for NASA was incorporated into the FY2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act, which provided $18.724 billion for the agency.

One of the major points of contention was the future of the U.S. human space flight program.  In 2004, following the space shuttle Columbia tragedy, President George W. Bush announced a Vision for Space Exploration to return humans to the surface of the Moon by 2020 and someday go to Mars.  He also decided that the space shuttle program would be terminated as soon as construction of the International Space Station (ISS) was completed, expected in 2010.   The Moon/Mars program was named Constellation and by the end of Bush’s second term work was underway to build two new rockets, Ares I and Ares V, and a crew spacecraft, Orion, to fulfill that goal as well as to take astronauts to and from the ISS since the shuttle no longer would be available.  A four-year gap was anticipated between the end of the space shuttle and the availability of the new Ares I/Orion system.

Shortly after he took office, Obama directed NASA to establish a blue ribbon panel, the Augustine committee, to develop options for the human space flight program. He did not make a decision about which option to take during the course of congressional deliberations on the FY2010 budget, so Congress included language in the FY2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act (P.L. 111-117, 123 STAT. 3143) prohibiting NASA from spending any funds to terminate Constellation or initiate a new program until Congress approved of such action through another appropriations act.

For FY2011, Obama requested $19.0 billion for NASA, 1.5% more than the FY2010 appropriation, but Congress provided $18.45 billion.  See our fact sheet on the FY2011 budget request for more details.

The FY2011 budget request, released on February 1, 2010, proposed dramatic changes to NASA’s plans for the future of the U.S. human space flight program.  The Obama Administration retained Bush’s plan to end the space shuttle program as soon as construction of the International Space Station (ISS) was completed, but terminated its successor –Ares I/Orion — and the rest of the Constellation program.

Instead of NASA developing Ares I/Orion as the new system to ferry crews to and from ISS in low Earth orbit (LEO), the Obama Administration proposed that the private sector be assigned that task.  Under the Obama plan, NASA would focus on developing “game-changing” technologies to enable lower cost human space flight missions beyond LEO in the future while subsidizing private sector companies to develop new crew space transportation systems (launch vehicles and spacecraft).  The Obama FY2011 budget request was for a total of $6 billion over five years (FY2011-2015) for that program, now called “commercial crew.”

The proposal was very controversial and the subject of many congressional hearings during 2010. President Obama made a speech at Kennedy Space Center on April 15, 2010 further explaining the plan, but it did little to ease congressional concerns.

Congress wanted NASA to develop a new crew space transportation system to service LEO as well as take astronauts to destinations beyond LEO. One concern was that private sector systems would not materialize and the “gap” between the end of the space shuttle program and the availability of a new U.S. crew space transportation system would be even longer than four years. The Obama Administration insisted that commercially-developed systems could be ready sooner than a government-developed system, shortening the gap.

A compromise was reached in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act (P.L. 111-267) in which NASA was directed to do both: build a new Space Launch System (SLS) and a Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion was ultimately chosen as this vehicle) for use both in LEO and for yet-to-be-determined beyond LEO destinations, as well as help commercial companies build LEO crew space transportation systems. The law also supported President Obama’s request to extend operations of the ISS through at least 2020 (the Bush Administration had envisioned ending U.S. participation in the program in 2015).

Many view the authorization act as recommending insufficient funds to do all that NASA would be required to do, and the FY2011 appropriations level was even less than what was authorized.  (Authorization bills set policy and recommend funding, but only appropriations bill actually provide money.)

For FY2012, President Obama requested $18.7 billion for NASA, the same as the amount appropriated for FY2010 and slightly more than what it received for FY2011.  Congress appropriated $17.8 billion, although an across-the-board rescission reduced that by $30 million for a final total of $17.77 billion, about $1 billion less than the request.  See our fact sheet on NASA’s FY2012 budget request for more details.

The debate over the FY2012 NASA budget request mirrored the debate from FY2011. The Obama Administration and Congress remained at odds over the future of the human space flight program. The bipartisan leadership of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and its Science and Space Subcommittee was particularly strong in criticizing the Obama Administration’s FY2012 NASA budget request because they believed it contravened the compromise reached in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act (P.L. 111-267). They insisted that the law made it clear that the priority was for NASA to develop a SLS and  the Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV/Orion), while also permitting NASA to financially assist commercial companies develop commercial crew space systems. The FY2012 budget request, however, asked for more money than was authorized for commercial crew and less money than was authorized for the SLS and MPCV/Orion.

The SLS was a particularly sore point between the Administration and Congress. The Senate Commerce committee went so far as to issue a subpoena to force NASA to provide documentation about its efforts regarding the SLS because they felt the Administration was dragging its feet. NASA was directed in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act to submit a report to Congress by January 2011 on the SLS and MPCV/Orion, but the agency submitted what it called an interim report and continually delayed release of the final version.  The issue came to a head in September 2011 following a story in the Wall Street Journal that asserted the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) was having “sticker shock” over the price of the system.   Senators Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) and Bill Nelson (D-FL) — the architects of the 2010 NASA Authorization Act — demanded a meeting with the OMB director, Jacob Lew, and NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden.  The SLS design was publicly released the next day, September 14,  in a hastily-called press conference in the Senate.

In the final appropriations bill, Congress increased the level of funding for SLS and MPCV/Orion, and approximately cut in half the requested funding for commercial crew.   A significant cut was also made to NASA’s technology development programs.  Congress increased funding for NASA’s troubled James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) program, which was severely over budget and behind schedule.   The House Appropriations Committee recommended terminating JWST when it marked up the CJS appropriations bill (H. Rept. 112-169), but the Senate Appropriations Committee took the opposite approach (S. Rept. 112-78) and added money so the telescope could be launched in 2018 instead of years later (at that time it was supposed to launch in 2013).   The Senate position prevailed in conference.

NASA’s FY2013 BUDGET and The Sequester

For FY2013, President Obama  requested $17.711 billion for NASA, slightly less than the $17.770 billion the agency received for FY2012.   The final amount and how it was allocated among NASA’s programs was not finalized until August 2013, 10 months into the fiscal year, because NASA’s budget, like most of the rest of the government, was subject to two rescissions and a sequester that made the final amounts much lower (about 7 percent in total) than they appeared in the report accompanying the appropriations bill.  According to NASA’s FY2013 operating plan, the final total was $16.865 billion, another approximately $1 billion cut from the request. See our fact sheet on NASA’d FY2013 budget request for more information.

The sequester was pursuant to the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) that set limits on how much money Congress could spend for all discretionary programs (defense and non-defense). If Congress exceeded that amount, across-the-board cuts would automatically go into effect for every program, regardless of merit.  The effects of the sequester on NASA and all the other departments and agencies convinced Congress and the Obama Administration to relax the limits for the rest of Obama’s term and into the Trump Administration, so FY2013 was the only year it was  implemented.

Human spaceflight remained controversial in FY2013 because of NASA’s request of $830 million for commercial crew, which SLS advocates once again argued violated the terms of the 2010 NASA Authorization Act where SLS and MPCV/Orion were to have priority.  For FY2013, commercial crew ultimately received $535 million instead.

However, the most controversial aspect of the FY2013 request was the reduction in funding for NASA’s planetary exploration program.  The cuts proposed for FY2013 and the following four years meant that NASA had to withdraw from a cooperative program with the European Space Agency (ESA) to launch two probes to Mars in 2016 and 2018.  They were the first in a series of probes over many years — a “campaign” — that eventually would lead to returning a sample of Mars to Earth.  Probes can be launched to Mars every 26 months when the planets are properly aligned.  That long-term commitment apparently was a factor in the reluctance of the Obama Administration to commit to the initial missions in 2016 and 2018.    Planetary exploration is popular in Congress and some Members immediately criticized the cut.  In December 2012, NASA announced that it would launch another Mars mission in 2020 using spare parts from the Mars Curiosity mission that is now exploring the planet, but with new science instruments.

NASA’s FY2014 and FY2015 BUDGETS

For FY2014, the Obama Administration requested $17.7 billion for NASA.   NASA’s FY2014 request included a new twist on the President’s directive that NASA send astronauts to an asteroid as the next step in human spaceflight.   His original proposal was to send astronauts to an asteroid, but NASA’s new plan, the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), would bring the asteroid to the astronauts.  A robotic spacecraft would be sent to capture an asteroid and redirect it into lunar orbit where the astronauts would visit it.   That initiative and other key aspects of the budget request are explained in an April 10, 2013 article.

After a tumultuous year of debate, which included a 16-day government shutdown (October 1-16, 2013) when Congress could not reach agreement on a FY2014 budget, NASA actually came out pretty well.   The FY2014 Consolidated Appropriations Act (colloquially called “the omnibus”) provided $17.67 billion for NASA, just $70 million less than the request.   Our FY2014 NASA budget fact sheet provides more detail.

Congress was not enthusiastic about the ARM proposal.  It did not prohibit NASA from spending money on it ($105 million was requested, but not in a specific line item in the budget), but made it clear that NASA needed to do much more work to convince them that ARM was a good idea.  Commercial crew fared somewhat better in FY2014:  it received $696 million compared to the $821 million request.  SLS and Orion received increases; the space technology budget was cut.

For FY2015, President Obama requested $17.461 billion for NASA, a reduction of $186 million from NASA’s FY2014 appropriation.  The President also requested funds for an “Opportunities, Growth and Security Initiative” (OGSI) that totaled $56 billion across the government.  It included $886 million for NASA.

Congress never formally considered the OGSI, but the final FY2015 appropriations bill added $549 million above the President’s request for the agency, a total of $18.010 billion.

The net increase represented additional funding for some programs (aeronautics, science — especially a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa and the SOFIA airborne observatory, SLS and Orion) and decreases for others (space technology, and commercial crew, for example).

NASA’s FY2015 funding is part of the Consolidated and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015 — colloquially called the CRomnibus.  For an explanation of the term CRomnibus and more details on NASA’s request and congressional action, see our fact sheet on NASA’s FY2015 budget.

NASA’s FY2016 and FY2017 BUDGETS

President Obama requested $18.529 billion for FY2016, a substantial increase above the FY2015 appropriated level of $18.010 billion, which itself was a significant increase above the FY2015 request.   For the second year in a row, Congress appropriated even more than the request:  $19.283 billion.  For details, see our fact sheet on NASA’s FY2016 budget request.

President Obama’s FY2017 budget request for NASA was very complicated because part of the money was supposed to come from mandatory spending rather than appropriated funds.  NASA has never received money from the mandatory part of the federal budget, which funds Medicare, Social Security, and interest on the national debt, for example.  Congress labeled it a gimmick and ignored that part of the request, but, for the third year in a row, provided NASA with substantially more than the request — $19.653 billion.   For details, see our fact sheet on NASA’s FY2017 budget request.


President Trump’s first budget request for NASA was for $19.092 billion, a reduction of $561 million from the FY2017 appropriated level.  Of perhaps more concern was that the projections for the next four years (the “outyears”) were for a level budget without an increase even for inflation.  Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot told the Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee at a June 29, 2017 hearing that a level budget over that period of time would mean a loss of $4.5 billion in buying power.  Trump proposed significant cuts to NASA’s Earth science program, terminating five missions (PACE, RBI, CLARREO-Pathfinder, OCO-3 and the earth facing instruments on DSCOVR), and to NASA’s Office of Education, which would be eliminated along with all of its programs.  Congress rejected those proposals in the final FY2018 appropriations bill, which was signed into law on March 23, 2018, and significantly increased NASA’s budget.  Congress appropriated $20.7 billion, an increase of $1.6 billion over the request and about $1.1 billion more than FY2017.  It funded four of the five earth science missions (NASA had terminated the fifth, RBI, on its own) and the NASA education programs. It also added $350 million for NASA to build a second mobile launch platform for SLS to shorten the time between the first and second launches.’s fact sheet on NASA’s FY2018 budget request tracked the request as Congress deliberated over it.  Look for it under the tab Reports||Fact Sheets.

For FY2019, Trump  requested $19.9 billion. Aware that Congress was going to fund the earth science and education programs he wanted to terminate in FY2018, he again proposed that they be eliminated.  He also proposed terminating the next large space telescope, the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) so the money could be used instead for the Moon/Mars human space exploration program and for smaller astrophysics projects.  As with FY2018, the outyears were level-funded with no increase for inflation.  In fact, the budget would slightly decrease from $19.9 billion in FY2019 to $19.6 billion for FY2020 and beyond.  Congress rejected the proposals to terminate the earth science, education and WFIRST programs and appropriated $1.6 billion more than requested, a total of $21.5 billion.’s fact sheet on NASA’s FY2019  budget request is located on this website under the tab Reports||Fact Sheets.  

NASA’s FY2020 and FY2021 Budgets –The Artemis Program Begins

For FY2020, Trump initially requested $21.019 billion, a $481 billion cut from the FY2019 appropriated level. He again proposed eliminating two earth science programs (PACE and CLARREO-Pathfinder), NASA’s education programs (which were renamed STEM Engagement by Congress), and WFIRST. He also proposed deferring work on an Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) for the Space Launch System (SLS) that would make it more capable for sending astronauts to the Moon and Mars.  The SLS schedule is slipping and he proposed deferring work on EUS to the prime contractor, Boeing, could focus on the initial version of SLS, which uses a different upper stage. The point was to focus on getting the first two flights off the ground rather than future capabilities.

On March 26, 2019, however, Vice President Pence, as chairman of the National Space Council, announced a major change for NASA’s human spaceflight program — accelerating by four years, from 2028 to 2024, the date for returning astronauts to the surface of the Moon. The announcement came after Boeing revealed further delays on SLS that would push the first flight from 2020 to 2021 (it originally was promised in 2018).  Pence used strong words to warn “contractors” and NASA itself that they would have to change, not the goal of landing on the Moon by 2024, the end of the Trump presidency assuming he is reelected in 2020.  The accelerated program is named Artemis, the twin sister of Apollo in Greek mythology. The Trump Administration is touting the inclusion of women in the program this time, unlike Apollo where 12 men landed on the Moon. Pence and NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine incessantly assert that the first Artemis mission will put “the first woman and the next man” on the Moon.

For another 10 months (until the FY2021 budget was released in February 2020), the Trump Administration would not tell Congress how much Artemis would cost. As a “downpayment,” on May 13, 2019, it submitted a supplemental request for an additional $1.6 billion, raising the total FY2020 NASA budget request to $22.616 billion.

Just over $1 billion of the $1.6 billion supplemental is for building human-capable landers — Human Landing Systems (HLS) — a sine qua non for taking people down and back to the lunar surface. NASA’s final FY2020 appropriations, part of the FY2020 Consolidated Appropriations Act, provided only $600 million for those landers, a lukewarm endorsement of the Artemis program.  In addition, it allows only 40 percent of the funds allocated for many of the Artemis-related activities to be obligated until NASA submits a plan to Congress on how the program will be executed.

The Artemis funding is part of the total of $22.629 billion for FY2020 allocated by Congress, very close to the amended request, but Congress again rejected the proposals to terminate PACE, CLARREO-Pathfinder, WFIRST, and the STEM Engagement program and restored funding for them.  It also rejected deferring work on the EUS. More information is in our fact sheet on NASA’s FY2020 budget request available on this website under the tab Reports||Fact Sheets.  

The request for FY2021 is $25.2 billion, a 12 percent increase over FY202o to pay for Artemis. When the budget was released in February 2020, Deputy Administrator Jim Morhard asserted that Artemis would cost $35 billion between FY2021 and FY2025, but did not provide details.  It apparently is the cost above and beyond what NASA already was planning to spend in those years, such as the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft that have been part of the NASA budget for many years.  The request yet again proposed terminating science and education programs the Trump Administration knows are congressional priorities and deferring work on EUS.

Not surprisingly, the House-passed FY2021 CJS appropriations bill (included in a package of six appropriations bills including defense, H.R. 7617, passed July 31, 2020), restored funding for the programs proposed for termination and deferral.  It also held NASA to its current funding level instead of increasing the budget to pay for Artemis. It did not reject Artemis — it funds SLS, Orion, and includes $628.2 million for HLS.  But the request for HLS was $3.4 billion. The reduced funding level would impact the pace at which those systems can be developed. The Senate Appropriations Committee had not acted as of September 4, 2020.


U.S. civil space policy is set both by presidential directive and in law. Presidential directives remain in force until and unless a future President revises them.  Thus, what is in force today is a mix of directives issued by President George W. Bush (2001-2009), President Barack Obama (2009-2017), and President Donald Trump (2017-present).

The most recent complete presidential National Space Policy was issued by President Obama on June 28, 2010.

President Trump changed two sentences of it in 2017 (see below), but the rest remains the same although the Executive Secretary of the White House National Space Council  said publicly in May 2020 that the Administration is working on an update of the entire document. Meanwhile Trump has issued several other space policy documents.

As of September 5, 2020, Trump has signed five Space Policy Directives (SPD), a National Space Strategy, and two Executive Orders.  Not all are directed at civil space policy, but all are listed here for completeness.

Historically, Obama’s 2010 National Space Policy superseded the 2006 National Space Policy issued by President George W. Bush, who also issued four more narrowly focused space policies:

Bush’s 2005 Space Transportation Policy was superseded on November 21, 2013 by a new version issued by President Obama:

Congress set policy most recently in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act (P.L. 111-267) and the 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act (P.L. 115-10). Those and other U.S. domestic space laws, including the 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Law that created NASA, are discussed under the Space Law section of this website.

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