Final FY19 Appropriations: NASA

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Publication date: 
28 February 2019

With the enactment of fiscal year 2019 appropriations, the budget for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate is rising 11 percent to $6.9 billion. Missions to Jupiter’s moon Europa and a new lunar research initiative are among the beneficiaries of the increase. The Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope is funded at a lower level than the mission’s plans anticipated.

Appropriations legislation enacted this month provides NASA’s Science Mission Directorate with a $684 million, or 11 percent, increase in its fiscal year 2019 budget, bringing it to $6.91 billion. That boost outpaces the 4 percent increase that Congress provided to the agency’s overall budget, which now stands at $21.5 billion.

The legislation is accompanied by an explanatory statement containing policy and funding direction for the agency. Unless negated in the final statement, language from the reports that accompany the House’s and Senate’s original versions of the legislation is also valid. Tables detailing proposed and final funding levels for agency programs are available in FYI’s Federal Science Budget Tracker.

Planetary Science Division

The budget for NASA’s Planetary Science Division is increasing $531 million to reach $2.76 billion, 24 percent above its already historically high level. That amounts to more than a $1.3 billion increase since 2014, when former Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) began forcefully advocating for the division’s work as the new chair of the House subcommittee responsible for NASA’s budget. Culberson lost his seat in the November election, but Congress completed negotiations over NASA spending before his departure and this year’s funding for planetary science reflects the level he was pushing.

Europa missions. Culberson was especially eager to move forward with two missions to Jupiter’s moon Europa in the conviction that life might exist in its subsurface ocean. That eagerness is reflected in the rapid funding increases he marshaled for the missions, including a $145 million increase this year to $740 million. This is the first year in which funding is specified for each mission separately. The Europa Clipper mission, which will make multiple flybys of the moon, is receiving $545 million. A follow-on lander mission is receiving $195 million, though NASA has not yet formally approved it for development.

The explanatory statement indicates funding for the missions is intended to “meet the science goals for the Jupiter Europa mission as recommended in previous Planetary Science Decadal Surveys.” However, the recent National Academies decadal survey midterm review pointed out that, in spite of “congressional interest” in the lander, the last survey only identified it as a priority for the “far term.” There have been doubts about whether Congress will fund the lander and potentially even the Clipper in Culberson’s absence.

The legislation also retains language from previous appropriations laws specifying aggressive launch dates for the Europa missions, albeit now pushed back one year, the Clipper to 2023 and the lander to 2025. The legislation also retains the specification that NASA launch the missions using its in-development Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, although the Trump administration would prefer to use less expensive commercial launch vehicles.

Lunar science. The lunar science initiative that NASA proposed in its budget request is fully funded at $218 million, with $21 million specified for continued operation of the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. As part of its initiative, NASA has just announced its selection of scientific instruments that it plans to fly as payloads aboard commercially operated landers, potentially beginning this year.

Planetary defense. The House report specifies that planetary defense activities receive $160 million. Per the explanatory statement, this includes $97 million for the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) mission and “no less than the fiscal year 2018 level for NEOCam,” a proposed space-based telescope tailored to detect near Earth objects.

Mars missions. The House report specifies $650 million for work on Mars missions, a $10 million decrease from last year. The Senate report specifies $50 million for studies and technology development for a future Mars sample return mission. The explanatory statement adopts Senate language directing NASA to proceed with its Mars helicopter demonstration on the Mars 2020 rover mission only if it does not cause delays.


NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and Science Mission Directorate head Thomas Zurbuchen

On Nov. 29, NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine and Science Mission Directorate head Thomas Zurbuchen revealed the identities of commercial partners eligible to receive task orders to convey science and technology demonstration payloads to the lunar surface.

(Image credit – NASA / Bill Ingalls)

Astrophysics Division

The Astrophysics Division and James Webb Space Telescope budgets are, together, increasing $112 million, or 8 percent, to $1.5 billion.

James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). As prime contractor Northrop Grumman continues pre-launch testing of JWST, the mission budget is decreasing as expected from $534 million to $305 million. The recent delay in the mission’s launch date to March 2021 will not necessitate supplementary funding until fiscal year 2020. The legislation raises the statutory cap on the mission’s development costs from $8 billion to $8.8 billion to accommodate the anticipated cost overrun. However, the explanatory statement declares:  

There is profound disappointment with both NASA and its contractors regarding mismanagement, complete lack of careful oversight, and overall poor basic workmanship on JWST, which has undergone two significant reviews because of failures on the part of NASA and its commercial sector partner. NASA and its commercial partners seem to believe that congressional funding for this project and other development efforts is an entitlement, unaffected by failures to stay on schedule or within budget. This attitude ignores the opportunity cost to other NASA activities that must be sacrificed or delayed.

The statement further indicates that if NASA does not adhere to the new cost cap, “JWST will have to find cost savings or cancel the mission.” 

Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST). Funding for WFIRST is rising from $150 million to “no less than” $312 million as it moves toward completion of its preliminary design phase. The Trump administration had proposed cancelling the mission, while the House proposed level funding. According to Astrophysics Division Director Paul Hertz, speaking on Feb. 25 to the interagency Astronomy and Astrophysics Advisory Committee (AAAC), the final funding level comes up about $60 million short of the telescope's originally planned budget for the year.

The explanatory statement “emphasizes and reiterates” House and Senate language insisting the project adhere to a $3.2 billion “mission cost cap.” Currently, NASA estimates with 50 percent confidence that the mission will cost the Science Mission Directorate $3.2 billion with an additional $130 million to be borne by NASA’s Science and Technology Mission Directorate. NASA is targeting to launch WFIRST in the mid-2020s, but if Congress does not provide JWST with additional funding starting next year that mission could siphon funds from WFIRST, resulting in a launch delay and higher total costs.

Technosignatures. The explanatory statement does not adopt the House proposal to provide $10 million to partner with private and philanthropic organizations’ efforts to search for “technosignatures” of extraterrestrial intelligence. However, Hertz told AAAC that NASA may still fund such work through its Exoplanet Research Program.

Earth Science Division

The Earth Science Division budget is rising $10 million, or 1 percent, to $1.93 billion.

Proposed cancellations rejected. Following suit with the previous budget cycle, the explanatory statement adopts language protecting the budgets for missions and instruments the Trump administration has proposed to defund: The Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud ocean Ecosystem (PACE) mission, the CLARREO Pathfinder instrument, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3 (OCO-3) instrument, NASA’s instruments aboard the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) satellite, and the Climate Monitoring System. Senate language also directs NASA to provide Congress with a five-year budget profile required for PACE and CLARREO Pathfinder to achieve their target launch dates and operate as originally planned.

Decadal survey. The House and Senate reports include language supporting the recent National Academies decadal survey for Earth science, and recommend NASA increase its use of competed missions to “encourage responsible cost and schedule constraints, develop novel remote sensing technologies, and leverage the talents and expertise of scientists at universities and research institutions.”

Heliophysics Division

The Heliophysics Division budget is increasing $32 million, or 5 percent, to $720 million.

Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP). The Senate specifies $100 million for solar terrestrial probes, which is $9 million more than requested, to support the formulation and development of IMAP, implement missions of opportunity, and maintain operations of ongoing missions. NASA selected IMAP for development last year and is targeting a 2024 launch date. The mission, which is cost capped at $492 million, will study particles streaming to Earth from the edge of interstellar space.

Space weather. The explanatory statement specifies $15 million for a “Space Weather Science Applications Project,” which Senate language describes as a “program to support innovation in solar observational capabilities and continue development of a space weather research program that advances research-to-operations, operations-to-research, and computational aspects of space weather mitigation.”

Education and outreach

Office of Education. The legislation renames the Office of Education as “STEM Engagement” and raises its budget 10 percent to $110 million. For the second year in a row, the administration had proposed defunding the office. The explanatory statement specifies $21 million for NASA’s Established Program to Stimulate Competitive Research (EPSCoR), $44 million for the Space Grant program, and $33 million for the Minority University Research and Education Program.

Science Mission Directorate education activities. Within the Astrophysics Division budget, $45 million is specified for directorate-wide education and public outreach activities, $1 million more than last year.

Other directorates

Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate. Funding is increasing $40 million, or 6 percent, to $725 million with $35 million specified for hypersonic research.

Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD). The administration’s proposal to merge NASA’s technology development directorate with its human exploration directorate is rejected and the STMD budget is increased $167 million, or 22 percent, to $927 million.

Satellite servicing. Within STMD, the budget for an experimental program to robotically service satellites is increasing 38 percent to $180 million. NASA plans to launch its first servicing mission, RESTORE-L, in 2020 to refuel Landsat 7 as a demonstration.

Nuclear thermal propulsion. Within STMD, the budget for nuclear thermal propulsion is increasing from $75 million to “not less than” $100 million, specifying at least $70 million for the design of a flight demonstration by 2024.

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