The Trump administration’s fiscal year 2019 budget request for NASA refocuses the agency on its exploration mission. Science funding would increase under the request, but NASA would cancel its flagship Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope and pare back its Earth Science portfolio. The Planetary Science Division would see a 22 percent budget increase and is slated to oversee a new Lunar Discovery and Exploration research program.
(Image credit – Bill Ingalls / NASA)
President Trump’s fiscal year 2019 budget request for NASA proposes to increase the agency’s budget from its fiscal year 2017 operating plan level of $19.7 billion to $19.9 billion. Within that, the budget for the Science Mission Directorate, which oversees NASA’s planetary, astrophysics, solar physics, and Earth observing missions, would increase by about 2 percent, from $5.8 billion to $5.9 billion.
The request, though, is centered around a new plan to reorient NASA’s activities to better serve its “core exploration mission.” The document outlines plans for a new “Exploration Campaign” in line with Trump’s Dec. 11 memorandum directing the agency to return astronauts to the Moon. As part of the campaign, NASA would aim to launch the first element of a Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway by 2022 and leverage commercial partnerships to undertake other lunar and cislunar exploration activities. NASA would also aim to divest itself from low Earth orbit activities, including the International Space Station, in the 2020s.
To fund long-term exploration priorities, NASA would cancel the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), a flagship mission targeted for launch in the mid-2020s. The Astrophysics Division budget would decrease to about $1.2 billion, or 12 percent below its current level, and remain there for the foreseeable future. The budget for the Earth Science Division would be kept at $1.8 billion, or 6 percent below its current level. Echoing last year’s budget request, the administration is also proposing to close NASA’s Office of Education. The Planetary Science Division budget would increase substantially, while the Heliophysics Division budget would receive a small increase.
WFIRST cancellation defies decadal survey recommendation
Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope. The National Academies’ 2010 astronomy and astrophysics decadal survey identified WFIRST as the research community’s top priority for space-based observations. The budget request justifies the mission’s cancellation, citing “higher priorities” within NASA as well as the telescope’s “increasing cost.” It also notes the $3.2 billion space telescope would come on the heels of the launch of the $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope (JWST).
After 2010, cost estimates for WFIRST crept upward as designers added new capabilities. Last year, NASA ordered the mission descoped to return it to its initial benchmark cost. The move followed from a recommendation of the decadal survey’s 2016 midterm review to prevent cost growth later in the mission development process.
The American Astronomical Society, an AIP Member Society, has released a statement strongly objecting to WFIRST’s cancellation and the Astrophysics budget reduction, stressing that government should adhere to community-based priorities when making decisions about science missions.
To date, Congress has supported WFIRST and may well rebuff the administration’s plans. Lawmakers specifically authorized preparation for the mission in the NASA Transition Authorization Act, which Trump signed into law one year ago. Congress has also been appropriating more funds to it than NASA has requested.
Astrophysics Division. If WFIRST continues, the mission's annual budget is on track to rise from about $100 million at present to over $300 million in fiscal year 2019. Meanwhile, the budget for JWST is set to decrease from over $500 million to about $300 millon as activity ramps down ahead of its launch, now scheduled for 2019.
The Astrophysics Division anticipates significantly increased funding for research grants and data analysis and for developing smaller missions. It is planning to release an announcement of opportunity in fiscal year 2019 for its Small Explorers and Missions of Opportunity program. Should Congress assent to cancelling WFIRST, there will be an additional announcement of opportunity for a medium-scale Probe-class mission.
Less focus on Earth, more on the Moon
Earth Science Division. The administration’s proposals for the Earth Science Division closely track those in its request for fiscal year 2018. In particular, it is zeroing out the budgets of the same five missions and mission elements it sought to cancel last year: the Pre-Aerosol, Clouds, and ocean Ecosystem (PACE) satellite, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3 (OCO-3), the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) Pathfinder, the Earth-facing instruments aboard the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), and the Radiation Budget Instrument (RBI) to be installed on the forthcoming JPSS-2 weather satellite.
How Congress will respond to last year’s proposals remains to be seen as it has not yet delivered a final appropriations package. House appropriators have proposed cutting the Earth Science budget by 11 percent, while Senate appropriators want to keep the division’s budget steady and explicitly rejected the cancellation of PACE, OCO-3, and CLARREO Pathfinder, and the shutdown of the DSCOVR instruments. Both proposals preceded Congress’ recent agreement to raise nondefense spending caps, which could lead to higher funding levels.
Regardless, the writing is already on the wall for RBI. On Jan. 26, NASA announced the instrument’s cancellation following an internal review that found it overburdened by technical difficulties and cost overruns.
New Planetary Science lunar program. Meanwhile, the administration is proposing to increase the Planetary Science Division budget by 22 percent, from $1.8 billion to $2.2 billion, with much of the new funding dedicated to robotic exploration of the Moon. The administration is requesting an additional $200 million annually for a new Lunar Discovery and Exploration program that will be part of the agency’s Exploration Campaign. Currently, the division spends less than $20 million per year on Moon missions through its operation of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter.
The lunar program would support both “human and science exploration goals” and operate in partnership with commercial efforts. According to the budget request, potential missions include deploying nodes for the proposed Lunar Geophysical Network, investigating potential lunar resources, and demonstrating technologies to enable long-term robotic missions on the lunar surface.
Significant activity anticipated in solar system missions
New Planetary Defense program. The Planetary Science Division is also planning to establish a Planetary Defense program, which includes a proposal to fund the formulation of the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission at $90 million in its first year. The spacecraft, to launch in 2020 or 2021, would collide with a double asteroid system as it passes near Earth, allowing observations of the impact’s effects on the motion of the system.
Asteroid missions. The budget of the division’s Discovery program is set to double in fiscal year 2019 to $381 million as formulation of the Lucy and Psyche asteroid missions proceeds apace.
Mars missions. The Discovery program’s Mars InSight lander is targeted for a May 2018 launch, allowing a ramp down in its budget. The budget for the flagship Mars 2020 rover is scheduled to decline slightly to $348 million as it proceeds toward launch. The Mars Sample Return mission remains in the early phases of planning but NASA has looped it into the Exploration Campaign, suggesting it will be a priority in the years ahead.
Europa missions. The budget request supports continued work on the Europa Clipper mission, while pushing back against the aggressive launch schedule and use of a Space Launch System (SLS) rocket mandated by Congress. The document does not mention the Europa lander mission, which Congress has directed NASA to pursue alongside the Clipper.
Heliophysics Division. The administration is proposing to increase the budget of the Heliophysics Division by 2 percent, from $675 million to $691 million. Notably, though, the anticipated launch of the flagship Parker Solar Probe in August will also free up over $130 million for the division. Part of the newly available funds are slated to go to a major increase in grants and support for guest investigators, in accord with decadal survey recommendations. The division is also planning to increase funding for “meaningful science-directed CubeSats” and anticipates launching two CubeSats during the fiscal year.
Small missions a harbinger of future space science?
CubeSat/SmallSat initiative. Moving forward, the Science Mission Directorate plans to spend about $70 million per year as part of a new CubeSat/SmallSat initiative, with all four divisions now either launching of developing missions employing these technologies. NASA also intends for these craft to be a focus for collaboration with industry: in fiscal year 2019, NASA will complete two CubeSats with industry partners that will demonstrate sensors for lunar measurements.
NASA’s blurring of boundaries between government and commercial initiative and between research and exploration may also be establishing a new model for space science. If the agency’s plans for its new lunar science program and for privatizing operation of the International Space Station go ahead, such research arrangements would become increasingly common in the years ahead.