Trump Budget Cuts NASA Earth Science, Boosts Planetary Science

Share This

Publication date: 
30 May 2017

The Trump administration’s fiscal year 2018 budget proposes to decrease funding for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate by about 1 percent relative to enacted fiscal year 2017 appropriations. Earth Science would see a 9 percent decrease and the cancellation of some missions, while Planetary Science would return almost to the record funding levels it enjoyed in the early 2000s.

While other science agencies are contending with dramatic changes proposed in President Trump’s fiscal year 2018 budget request, the administration’s proposal for NASA is comparatively mild. The budget proposes an overall funding decrease for the space agency of about 3 percent relative to the enacted level for fiscal year 2017. Within that, funding for the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) would decrease by about 1 percent to $5.71 billion.

Shortly after the budget’s release, Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot remarked in the annual State of NASA address,

What this budget tells us to do is keep going, keep doing what we’ve been doing. It’s very important to maintain that course and move forward as an agency with all the great things we’re doing.

Even still, the budget does propose some major changes, including the closure of NASA’s Office of Education, a 9 percent cut in the Earth Science budget, and a substantial increase in the Planetary Science budget.

The charts below summarize the changes the Trump administration is proposing for NASA. More detailed budget information is available in FYI’s Federal Science Budget Tracker. NASA’s official budget documents are posted here. Final funding levels for the next fiscal year will not be set until appropriations legislation is written and enacted.

Science Mission Directorate Highlights

Earth Science

The 9 percent cut to the Earth Science Division would fall largely on competitive grant funding and on  five missions and instruments targeted for cancellation. The budget would halt work on the PACE satellite, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory–3, CLARREO Pathfinder, and Radiation Budget Instrument, and shut down the Earth-facing instruments on the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), which launched in 2015. However, in its fiscal year 2017 appropriations, Congress gave PACE full funding, suggesting an intention to fund the mission through to launch. Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), who chairs the House Appropriations subcommittee responsible for NASA’s budget, recently said he will continue to resist calls from within Congress to pare back the division’s budget.

Other missions currently operating and preparing for launch are funded at or near their planned levels in the Trump budget.

Planetary Science

Under the Trump budget, Planetary Science would overtake Earth Science to become SMD’s largest division, with its annual budget increasing by 5.6 percent* to $1.93 billion. Before fiscal year 2017 appropriations were enacted, its annual budget stood at $1.63 billion. Much of this increase would support the ramp up of the Europa Clipper mission, which is a priority for Culberson. The budget does not mention the proposed Europa lander mission, which Congress also favors but was targeted for elimination in the administration’s budget blueprint released in March.

Other missions currently preparing for launch are funded to proceed on schedule, including the Mars 2020 rover, one of NASA’s large strategic missions. The budget for Discovery missions is slated to increase significantly as the delayed Mars InSight lander prepares for launch, and as the Lucy and Psyche missions are formulated. Notably, NASA has just announced that Psyche will be pushed forward by one year to take advantage of a favorable trajectory that will place it at its destination, a metallic asteroid, four years ahead of schedule. The New Frontiers mission budget is down to $82 million this year as the latest mission, the OSIRIS-REx asteroid sample return mission, launched last year and NASA has not yet selected the next mission in this series.

*This figure is calculated excluding the funds for SMD-wide education activities that are partially incorporated in the division’s budget in fiscal year 2017 but not in the fiscal year 2018 proposal.

Astrophysics & James Webb Space Telescope

The ramp down in funding for the James Webb Space Telescope ahead of its 2018 launch date is on schedule. In fiscal year 2017 appropriations, increases for other Astrophysics activities failed to keep pace with the JWST ramp down. In the Trump budget, combined JWST and Astrophysics funding would increase by 0.4 percent.* Following Congress’ lead, the Trump budget would accelerate somewhat the funding ramp up for certain projects, most notably the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST).

Earlier this month, Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz said that, under current funding levels, implementing higher-than-planned funding levels for certain projects will squeeze other projects harder than the division’s top-line number suggests. For further discussion of the budget proposal for the division, please consult the American Astronomical Society’s summary.

*This figure is calculated excluding funds for SMD-wide education activities that are partially incorporated in the enacted Astrophysics fiscal year 2017 budget and are completely incorporated in the fiscal year 2018 proposal.


Under the Trump budget, the Heliophysics Division would be funded in fiscal year 2018 at very nearly the same level that Congress set for the current fiscal year. Proposed funding for the division’s largest mission, Solar Probe Plus, is at its peak, $266 million, as the mission team prepares for launch in August 2018.

Science Mission Directorate Education

The Trump budget proposes to increase SMD’s education budget from $37 million to $44 million. Note that under fiscal year 2017 appropriations these funds are drawn equally from the Planetary Science and Astrophysics Division budgets. In the Trump budget, they are drawn entirely from the Astrophysics budget.

Other Highlights

Office of Education

Consistent with March’s budget blueprint, the Trump budget proposes eliminating NASA’s Office of Education. Its funding level would be reduced from $100 million to $37 million, which the budget specifies is for closeout operations. In his State of NASA address, Lightfoot remarked,

[The budget] no longer supports a formal Office of Education, but I think we’ll continue to inspire that next generation. It’s what we do, right? We do it through our missions, we do it through the many ways our work excites and encourages discovery by learners and educators.

Lightfoot said that NASA would use the closure to revisit its public outreach strategies.


Following the 8.2 percent funding boost NASA’s Exploration directorate received in fiscal year 2017 appropriations, the Trump budget would dial its budget back by 9 percent to $3.93 billion. The primary projects within Exploration are the development of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion crew vehicle, which will carry payloads and astronauts beyond low Earth orbit. NASA recently confirmed that these programs are slipping behind schedule and that the first SLS launch will have to be delayed from late 2018 to sometime in 2019. The Trump budget also calls for cancellation of the directorate’s Asteroid Redirect Mission while maintaining support for technologies associated with that mission, notably solar electric propulsion.

Space Operations

Space Operations, which encompasses operation of the International Space Station, and crew and cargo transport activities, would see a 4.2 percent cut under the Trump budget, bringing its annual budget to about $4.74 billion. This reduction would come on top of a 1.6 percent cut in fiscal year 2017 appropriations.


Funding for NASA’s Aeronautics Directorate would decrease by 5.5 percent under the Trump budget to a level of $624 million following a 4.1 percent increase in fiscal year 2017 appropriations. More significantly, the Trump budget calls off the Obama administration’s 10-year plan to markedly expand NASA’s aeronautics R&D programs, and instead forecasts flat budgets for the foreseeable future.

About the author

headshot of Will Thomas
wthomas [at]
+1 301-209-3097