Thursday, February 11, 2016

White House Proposes NASA $19 Billion for the Fiscal Year 2017

Credit: NASA

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

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

“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 sufficient to secure ambitious exploration and scientific discovery plans, without mentioning the cuts. He made remarks about the request on Tuesday when 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. (…) We’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.

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

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

"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 is indeed cutting 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. But despite the cuts, NASA assures that it is on track for a launch capability readiness date of November 2018 for Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), which 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 have also 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.

Credit: NASA
Credit: NASA

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 it, gets $66.7 to develop a robotic spacecraft capable of completing this mission.

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

NASA’s Comercial Crew and Cargo Program responsible for sending cargo to the International Space Station (ISS) and for future transportation of astronauts to the orbital laboratory gets a significant $500 million boost. The overall $5 billion request for space operations includes $1.43 billion for ISS. The rest, besides financing cargo missions, is allocated to secure Soyuz flights with NASA astronauts to the Station and to support the development of commercial crew program that will carry out launches from American soil, ending reliance on Russia.

Earth science receives about $250 million more than in last year’s budget. The future Landsat 9 satellite gets $131 million – the biggest amount among any other Earth observing missions. The biggest cut was made to the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment Follow-on (GRACE-FO) mission, decreasing funding by nearly 44 percent, leaving the spacecraft with $34 million. Earth science, with a budget of $2 billion could be most vulnerable to criticism as it was many times under fire from Republicans arguing that NASA should focus on deep space exploration instead of studying our planet.

“This 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 Mars Science Laboratory’s (MSL) curiosity rover gets the biggest 25 percent piece. Funds for the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile EvolutioN (MAVEN) mission were doubled to $28 million. A drastic cut was made to Dawn mission currently exploring 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 successful mission. With $14 million, New Horizons will get just a half of the amount than in FY2016.

However, the most damaging cuts could be these 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 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, $44 million – that’s only 23 percent of the funding received last year. The InSight Mars lander will get only 14 percent of the enacted last year’s budget of $92 million, due to cancellation of the March 2016 launch opportunity.

NASA’s Mars 2020 mission is the biggest winner among the agency’s future fleet of spacecraft. The rover will get $377 million - $274 million more than in previous budget. The budget request for planetary science also allocates 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 will go to NASA’s SOFIA airborne astronomical observatory. Chandra X-Ray Observatory will also get a significant share of funds allocated to astrophysics as it will 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 will 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 will explore the sun’s outer atmosphere receives $232 million.

Other winners of the FY2017 proposal include space technology and aeronautics. Space technology, that 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.

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