Final FY17 Appropriations: NASA

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Publication date: 
May 5, 2017

The final appropriations agreement for fiscal year 2017 provides a 3.1 percent increase for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. Planetary Science will receive a 12 percent increase and is instructed to proceed with a Europa lander mission. Heliophysics will receive a smaller increase while Earth Science funding will remain unchanged. As work on the James Webb Space Telescope ramps down, total funds allocated to Astrophysics activities will decrease.

With approval in the Senate yesterday, Congress has finalized appropriations legislation for fiscal year 2017 that provides for a 1.9 percent increase to NASA’s budget and, within that, a 3.1 percent increase to the Science Mission Directorate (SMD). The bill, the final product of some two years of legislative work, now goes to President Trump, who is expected to sign it today. At that point, the funding levels it mandates will prevail at least until the end of the fiscal year on Sept. 30.

Per custom, the bill is accompanied by an explanatory statement, which provides additional policy direction as well as recommended funding levels for the four divisions in NASA’s SMD and for a variety of programs and projects. The statement also establishes that last year’s House and Senate appropriations committee reports provide equivalent direction where not otherwise negated by new language. While the statement and reports do not carry the authority of law, agencies typically abide by their instructions.

Congress is providing for the following changes in funding for SMD:

The bill raises SMD’s budget to the level of $5.764 billion, which is higher than the Obama administration’s request, the House and Senate proposals, and the funding authorization recently included in the NASA Transition Authorization Act. It also defies the Trump administration’s request for a 0.9 percent cut, proposed in March to help offset an immediate increase in military and border security spending.

While both the Obama administration and the Senate sought a major cut to the Planetary Science Division’s budget, negotiators ultimately acceded to the House’s proposed appropriation and provided a 12 percent increase. The new level nearly matches the $1.9 billion level that the Trump administration plans to seek for fiscal year 2018. However, Congress is upending the administration’s proposal to cancel a Europa lander mission by instead including a provision in the statute that NASA should launch the mission “no later than 2024.”

Within the Astrophysics Division, the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) has now entered pre-launch testing and its budget is being reduced by about $50 million to reflect decreased activity. This reduction was not accompanied by any significant increase for other Astrophysics activities, even though one was called for in the Obama administration’s budget request as well as in the Senate’s and House’s original appropriations bills for NASA. Thus, all division activities, with JWST included, collectively took a 3.7 percent cut, which could disrupt plans for activities that are not explicitly provided with their requested funding.

The budget of the Earth Science Division has been the subject of intense scrutiny as the House had aimed to cut it by about 12 percent while the Obama administration and the Senate sought moderate increases. The final outcome of negotiations is that the budget is being left unchanged.

The Senate proposal of a 4.4 percent increase in the Heliophysics Division budget prevailed, bringing its total funding level to $678.5 million.

FY17 NASA Appropriations

Funding Line FY16
House Senate Final Change
NASA Science 5,589 5,601 5,597 5,395 5,765 3.1%
Earth Science 1,921 2,032 1,681 1,984 1,921 0.0%
Planetary Science 1,631 1,519 1,837 1,356 1,828 12.0%
Astrophysics + JWST 1,351 1,326 1,353 1,334 1,301 -3.7%
Astrophysics 731 757 784 765 732 0.1%
Heliophysics 650 699 689 679 679 4.4%
SMD Education 37 25 37 42 37 0.0%

All figures are in millions of nominal U.S. dollars and are rounded to the nearest million. The percentages are calculated based on the unrounded figures.

*Includes $298 million in proposed mandatory spending, $60 million of which is for Earth Science, $128 million for Planetary Science, $85 million for Astrophysics, and $25 million for Heliophysics.

† This table separates out FY17 funding for SMD education activities into a separate line to permit more accurate comparisons with FY16 and between the research division accounts. The figures for the House bill assume that the divisions contribute equal amounts to approximate the House’s proposal to spread funding “proportionally” across the four divisions. The final bill specifies that this funding be derived equally from Astrophysics and Planetary Science. The budget request and the Senate bill proposed that this funding be derived entirely from the Astrophysics budget. In FY16, these funds were included as their own line item in the SMD budget.

Further budget information, including figures for other NASA mission directorates, is available in the Federal Science Budget Tracker on FYI’s website. Below are selected highlights from the bill and its accompanying reports.

Other highlights

Planetary Science

  • Europa: Specifies a combined appropriation of $275 million for the Europa Clipper and Europa lander missions, and retires the Senate’s proposal that NASA consider a combined orbiter and lander.
  • Mars 2020 rover and Mars helicopter: Specifies $408 million, up from $250 million in fiscal year 2016, reflecting a ramp up in mission development; also adopts a House proposal to allocate $15 million for demonstration of technology for a Mars-adapted helicopter that could accompany the rover.
  • New Frontiers program: Specifies $136.5 million for all New Frontiers missions, a reduced level mainly reflecting reduced costs following the launch of the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission.
  • Discovery program: Specifies $224.8 million for all Discovery missions, an increased level mainly reflecting the movement of the Lucy and Psyche missions into formulation.


  • WFIRST: Specifies $105 million for the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, up from $90 million, reflecting a ramp up in development; applies a cap to the mission’s life-cycle cost of $3.5 billion to guard against overruns.
  • Segmented aperture telescope technology: Encourages NASA “to strengthen industry involvement in leveraging and scaling new technologies developed for the JWST to larger segmented-aperture telescopes,” and specifies $5 million for this activity.
  • Starshade technology: Supports “continued appropriate low level” development of a starshade, which could allow future space telescopes to image certain exoplanets.
  • Education: Specifies $37 million for Astrophysics-administered STEM education programs, with funds derived equally from the Astrophysics and Planetary Science budgets. In fiscal year 2016 appropriations, these funds were included as their own line item in the SMD budget. (To provide more meaningful comparisons with FY 2016, this bulletin subtracts any education funds included in FY 2017 division budget numbers.)

Earth Science

  • PACE: Specifies $90 million for the Plankton, Aerosol, Clouds, and Ocean Ecosystem mission, which the Trump administration has targeted for cancellation.
  • Landsat-9: Specifies $130.9 million, up from $100 million last year, reflecting the ramp-up in development as the satellite moves closer to its scheduled 2023 launch date.

Non-SMD provisions

  • FFRDC conversion: Retires a House proposal to direct NASA to consider converting its centers into federally funded research and development centers.
  • Nuclear propulsion: Provides no less than $35 million for nuclear propulsion technologies for space transportation and exploration, and directs NASA to submit a report on such technologies.
  • Pu-238: Includes $20 million for NASA to continue its collaboration with the Department of Energy to domestically produce plutonium-238 for use as an energy source in space missions.
  • Office of Education: Provides $100 million for NASA’s Office of Education, as requested by the Obama administration, and specifies $18 million for the Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), $40 million for Space Grant, and $32 million for the Minority University Research and Education Project. The Trump administration is seeking to eliminate the office.
  • Exploration: Increases Exploration Directorate appropriations to over $4.3 billion, a 7.3 percent increase and about $1 billion over the Obama administration’s request. The increase goes mainly to the Orion crew vehicle and Space Launch System programs.
  • Asteroid redirect technologies: Supports use of Exploration Directorate funds toward development of advanced propulsion, asteroid deflection, and grappling technologies associated with the Asteroid Redirect Mission, which some in Congress have suggested is an unnecessary distraction from the larger goal of sending humans to Mars.

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