NASA’s FY18 Budget Allotment Offers a Few Surprises, Though Agency is Largely Unscathed

by Bill Ostrove, Space Systems Analyst, Forecast International.

NASA’s Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV)

President Donald Trump’s Fiscal Year 18 federal budget proposal – released on May 23 –  includes a few surprises for NASA.  While much has been made of the many cuts to social programs in the president’s budget, NASA’s funding remains largely unchanged – with a few notable exceptions.

Overall, the White House budget request represents a 2.9 percent decline for NASA from enacted FY17 spending levels, and a 1 percent decline from its FY16 spending levels. While no agency wants to see its budget cut, NASA fares well compared to other non-military agencies, which are set to lose $3.6 trillion in spending over the next decade.

While NASA is spared major overall changes, there are a few important adjustments that may indicate the direction NASA will take under the Trump presidency.

The first change is in distribution of science theme funding. Overall funding for science missions remains largely stable, declining from the $5.8 billion enacted in FY17 to $5.7 billion requested for FY18. However, Earth science missions are cut by 9 percent compared to FY16 figures (breakouts are not available for FY17 yet). Spending cuts will force NASA to terminate five Earth science missions – PACE, OCO-3, DSCOVR, the Radiation Budget Instrument (RBI), and CLARREO Pathfinder. The budget decrease also reduces funding available for Earth science research grants.

While Earth science missions lose funding, planetary science missions are major winners. Funding levels increase 18.5 percent for planetary science between FY16 and FY18. The increases will support a rover mission to Mars and an orbiter mission to Jupiter’s moon, Europa. The budget also focuses funding on smaller, less expensive spacecraft.

Another major program to experience a decline in spending in FY18 will be the James Webb Space Telescope. However, this cut does not reflect a decrease in commitment to the JWST, but rather the decreasing amount of money required for the program as it nears completion.

One of the biggest surprises in the NASA budget is a decline in space operations and exploration systems themes. These themes fund human spaceflight operations, including commercial crew development efforts and Orion and SLS development. President Trump has indicated he would like to send humans to Mars during his first term. However, the space operations budget declines 4.2 percent and the exploration systems budget declines 9 percent between FY17 and FY18. It will be difficult for NASA and commercial companies to increase the pace of development with these levels of funding.

The final major change comes in the education theme. Indicating that efforts from the theme are duplicates of other NASA activities, the president’s budget proposal calls for a 62.7 percent decline in education funding.

The president’s FY18 budget request gives few clues about future spending plans. The budget indicates a plan to keep spending flat between FY18 and FY22, with no room for increases even to accommodate inflation. However, it is unclear whether this is a true plan, or rather an early template for a plan that does not exist yet. NASA may be in line for major changes starting in FY19, as the new administration develops a more detailed strategy.

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