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White House proposes $19 billion for NASA’s fiscal year 2017

Front cover of the FY 2017 budget estimates for NASA.

Front cover of the FY 2017 budget estimates for NASA. Image Credit: NASA

The White House has submitted a $19 billion FY2017 budget request for NASA to Congress – which is $260 million less than the agency received last year. The proposed $19.025 billion budget envisions major cuts to NASA’s flagship Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion projects that are being developed to send humans to Mars while promising increases for the agency’s Commercial Crew Program, Earth science, astronautics, and technology efforts.

The request, released on Tuesday, Feb. 9, is perceived by the Obama Administration as providing robust funding to support space exploration while strengthening the agency’s partnership with the private sector towards the goal of sending astronauts to Mars in the 2030s. The White House also underlined the importance of investing in Earth science and developing new space technologies via partnerships with the private sector.

“It invests in strategies to make our communities more resilient to floods, wildfires, and other effects of climate change. And, it protects and modernizes our water supply and preserves our natural landscapes. These investments, coupled with those in other cutting-edge technology sectors ranging from manufacturing to space exploration, will drive new jobs, new industries, and a new understanding of the world around us,” President Barack Obama said about the budget request.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden welcomed the budget proposal as being sufficient to secure ambitious exploration goals and scientific discovery plans, without mentioning the cuts. He made his remarks about the request on Tuesday while delivering the annual State of NASA address at the agency’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA.

“The investments in the President’s FY2017 budget proposal announced today will empower the people of NASA to improve our quality of life today and prepare to send American astronauts to Mars in the 2030s. […]. [W]e’ll continue to work with partners both in and out of government to develop the technologies that drive exploration, create jobs and continue to make launches more affordable,” Bolden said.

Bolden stated that Obama’s FY2017 budget request sets the agency on a visionary course when it comes to aeronautics and space. NASA’s current administrator also hopes that future leaders from all sides of the political spectrum will choose to see it that way.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden talks about the agency’s scientific and technological achievements, and cutting-edge future work, including sending American astronauts to Mars in the 2030s, during a State of NASA event, as NASA Langley Center Director Dave Bowles looks on, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016 at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden talks about the agency’s scientific and technological achievements, and cutting-edge future work, including sending American astronauts to Mars in the 2030s, during a State of NASA event, as NASA Langley Center Director Dave Bowles looks on, Tuesday, Feb. 9, 2016, at the NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Photo Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

However, the proposal will likely face opposition in the Republican-dominated Congress. The cuts made to the GOP-backed SLS and Orion exploration programs could make the request dead on arrival. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the Chairman of the House Science Committee, was hard-hitting in his criticism of the proposal.

“This administration cannot continue to tout plans to send astronauts to Mars while strangling the programs that will take us there. President Obama’s FY17 budget proposal shrinks our deep space exploration programs by more than $800 million. And the administration once more proposes cuts of more than $100 million to the Planetary Science accounts, which have previously funded missions like this past year’s Pluto flyby,” Smith said in a statement.

Others were franker in their criticism of the budget proposal.

“If this budget request is what NASA claims as support for SLS, then I don’t want to imagine what a lack of support looks like,” said Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama).

The request would cut nearly $700 million from SLS and $150 from Orion program. Although it allots $20 million more to Exploration Ground Systems supporting deep space exploration, the development of exploration systems will get exactly $820.5 million less than last year.

Despite these cuts, NASA has attempted to assure that it is on track for a launch capability readiness date of November 2018 for Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1). EM-1 will be an uncrewed test of the SLS rocket carrying an Orion capsule.

“One of my overarching goals is to focus this team on delivery of the Exploration Mission-1 launch vehicle,” said Todd May, the newly-appointed director of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL.

“We’re on track to meet that goal,” he added.

The proposed cuts to human exploration programs also have some space companies worried. The Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, comprised of aerospace industry firms, although generally supporting the proposal, is concerned about the proposed cuts made to Orion and SLS.

“While we appreciate the funding proposed for the International Space Station and its transportation systems, space science programs including the James Webb Space Telescope, and proposed deep space habitat, we are deeply concerned about the Administration’s proposed cut to NASA’s human exploration development programs. This proposed budget falls well short of the investment needed to support NASA’s exploration missions, and would have detrimental impacts on cornerstone, game-changing programs such as the super-heavy-lift rocket, the SLS, and the Orion spacecraft – the first spacecraft designed to reach multiple destinations in the human exploration of deep space,” the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration said in a statement.

The Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) that would collect a multi-ton boulder from an asteroid, and redirect it into a stable orbit around the Moon for astronauts to explore, would receive $66.7 to develop a robotic spacecraft capable of completing this mission.

However, NASA Chief Financial Officer David Radzanowski revealed that ARM will probably launch later than what was previously anticipated. He stated that: the agency is “looking at a target date in the early to mid-2020s, roughly 2023.”

NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Programs, responsible for sending cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) and for future transportation of astronauts to the orbital laboratory, would get a significant boost of some $500 million. The total $5 billion request for space operations includes $1.43 billion for the ISS. The remainder, besides financing cargo missions, is allocated to secure Soyuz flights with NASA astronauts to the station and to support the development of the Commercial Crew Program that is designed to end the U.S.’ reliance on Russian spacecraft.

FY2017 budget request for NASA.

FY2017 budget request for NASA. Image Credit: NASA

Earth science receives about $250 million more than in last year’s budget. The future Landsat 9 satellite would receive $131 million – the largest amount among any of the other Earth-observing missions. The biggest cut was made to the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-on (GRACE-FO) mission, which saw its funding decreased by nearly 44 percent, leaving the spacecraft with $34 million.

Earth science, with a budget of $2 billion, could be viewed as being the most vulnerable to criticism as it came under fire numerous times from Republicans who argued that NASA should focus on deep space exploration instead of studying our planet.

“[T]his proposal shrinks space exploration priorities within NASA’s budget; it disproportionately increases Earth Science accounts to more than $2 billion – a seventy percent increase since 2007. This imbalanced proposal continues to tie our astronauts’ feet to the ground and makes a Mars mission all but impossible. This is not the proposal of an administration that is serious about maintaining America’s leadership in space,” Smith said.

Planetary science gets a slight increase of $70 million to fund further operations of NASA’s spacecraft exploring other planets and moons. Financing of current Mars mission remains on a stable level of $200 million of which the Mars Science Laboratory’s (MSL) Curiosity rover received the largest 25 percent piece. Meanwhile, funds for the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission were doubled to $28 million. A drastic cut was made to the Dawn mission currently exploring the dwarf planet Ceres – leaving only $1 million to maintain operations ahead of its imminent conclusion. The Cassini spacecraft will experience significant cut as the funding was decreased by $10 million as the probe is slated to plunge into Saturn in 2017, ending its long-lasting mission. Also of note, with $14 million, New Horizons will get just a half of the amount that it did in FY2016.

However, the most damaging cuts could be those made to future deep space endeavors. A proposed mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa loses $125 million, securing only $50 million for further development. The current level of funding supports the launch of the Europa mission as early as the late 2020s, assuming the mission concept and scope remain stable. The OSIRIS-Rex spacecraft, tasked with bringing back pristine samples from a carbon-rich asteroid, would get $44 million – only 23 percent of the funding received last year. The InSight Mars lander will get only 14 percent of last year’s budget of $92 million, due to cancellation of the March 2016 launch opportunity.

NASA’s Mars 2020 Rover mission is the biggest winner among the agency’s future fleet of spacecraft. The rover would get $377 million – $274 million more than in the previous budget. The budget request for planetary science also allocates an additional $10 million for near-Earth object observations.

Astrophysics gets $50 million more than it received last year ($730 million). Funds for the Hubble Space Telescope remain at the same level of about $97 million. Additional funding of $13 million would go to NASA’s SOFIA airborne astronomical observatory. The Chandra X-Ray Observatory will also get a significant share of funds allocated to astrophysics as it would receive $52 million. Nearly $134 million in the request goes to activities related to exoplanet hunting.

Cuts were made to Hubble’s successor, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The project would receive $50 million less than in FY2016 for the development of the spacecraft. According to NASA, $570 million is sufficient to keep JWST on schedule for a 2018 launch.

Heliophysics gets nearly $700 million – $63 million more than last year. Solar Probe Plus, slated to be launched in 2018, is the greatest beneficiary. The spacecraft that is tasked with exploring the Sun’s outer atmosphere receives $232 million.

Other winners of the FY2017 proposal include space technology and aeronautics. Space technology, which includes a variety of programs from satellite servicing to development of solar electric propulsion, gets a boost of $226 million. Nearly $150 million more is allocated to aeronautics, mainly for the development of ultra-efficient commercial vehicles and for innovation in commercial supersonic aircraft.

Tomasz Nowakowski is the owner of Astro Watch, one of the premier astronomy and science-related blogs on the internet. Nowakowski reached out to SpaceFlight Insider in an effort to have the two space-related websites collaborate. Nowakowski's generous offer was gratefully received with the two organizations now working to better relay important developments as they pertain to space exploration.

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Reader Comments

The most exciting programs and most likely to succeed that will give NASA attention from the general public are as follows.

#1: Dragon V2 and Starliner
#2: Commercial Resupply (#2 only because we already have it)
#3: Deep Space Habitat (Bigelow Aerospace test habitat with the ISS)
#4: James Web Space Telescope
#5: Europa Probe and lander

U.S. Manned spaceflight has been out of the picture for so long since we’ve been riding with the Russians. We need to get our spacecraft out in the media and we are so close. I do not believe that the SLS will be the main support for a Mars mission. Most of the payloads for supplies as well as constructing whatever transport in orbit will probably use Cost fixed contracts through SpaceX’, ULA and ATK/Orbital. The Orion Capsule will probably be used for Earth reentry from missions coming back from Deep space, but these won’t be many. If NASA changes its plans and decides to head for the moon I see them doing it using a Dragon V2 as a lander and the Orion Spacecraft for Earth Return. Eventually cost+contracts will be fazed out now that there is a growing industry of competitors in the business.

While we keep hearing about NASA promising that astronauts will be sent to Mars, the budget for such an adventure keeps getting cut, to the point where it is quite possible that no such mission will actually take place any time soon. That’s very unfortunate. After all, it’s not like Mars is already occupied and Earthlings have to negotiate a visit there. Or, maybe…

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