After drastically reducing NASA’s budget for earth sciences and cutting critical Earth missions last year, the US administration now wants NASA to move away from doing business in low-Earth orbit and instead focus on Moon landing. The Budget request, which came out on February 12, and details how the White House wants to fund NASA in fiscal year 2019, doesn’t want to continue funding for the space station beyond 2025. The request allocates a total of $19.9 billion to NASA, an increase of $370 million over last year’s request.
“It is my privilege today to present President Trump’s Fiscal Year 2019 budget request of $19.9 billion for NASA. It reflects the administration’s confidence that through NASA leadership, America will lead the way back to the Moon and take the next giant leap from where we made that first small step nearly 50 years ago,” NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot said while presenting the Fiscal Year 2019 agency budget proposal.
Watch NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot’s speech here
Funding for ISS ends by 2025
The budget estimates ends direct funding for the International Space Station by 2025 and allocates $150 million “to encourage development of new commercial low-Earth orbital platforms (where the space station resides) and capabilities for use by the private sector and NASA”.
According to an earlier Washington Post report, the administration doesn’t want NASA to get rid of the space station, but turn it into some kind of orbiting real estate venture run by the private industry. The goal is to let private players or other countries pick up the tab, so that ISS keeps running and NASA still has some platform to conduct it experiments.
According to an internal NASA document obtained by The Washington Post, “The decision to end direct federal support for the ISS in 2025 does not imply that the platform itself will be deorbited at that time — it is possible that industry could continue to operate certain elements or capabilities of the ISS as part of a future commercial platform.”
“NASA will expand international and commercial partnerships over the next seven years in order to ensure continued human access to and presence in low Earth orbit,” the document adds.
To enable a timely development and transition of commercial capabilities in LEO where “NASA could be one of many customers in the mid-2020s”, the administration is proposing to end direct Federal support for the ISS in 2025 under the current NASA-directed operating model, while setting aside $150 million “to enable the development and maturation of commercial entities and capabilities which will ensure that commercial successors to the ISS – potentially including elements of the ISS – are operational when they are needed.” The investments may be increased above $150 million, which will be included in future years’ budget requests.
Earth Sciences missions cancelled
The total budget for Earth science has been cut to $1.78 billion, down 6% from $1.9 billion last year. Though the agency’s overall science budget increased from $5.76 billion to $5.9 billion, the gains mostly went to planetary science.
The 2019 budget request calls for cancellation of the same five earth science missions as it had proposed last year.
Of the five missions, the Radiation Budget Instrument (RBI) was canceled in January. The other four — Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) satellite; the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3 (OCO-3) experiment; the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory (CLARREO) Pathfinder; and the Earth-viewing instruments of the Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR) mission – now face the axe.
Just two years back in its 2017 budget request the agency had proposed ro spend $27.9 million for CLARREO Pathfinder, $9.5 million for OCO-3 and $1.2 million for DSCOVR. The DSCOVR satellite is already in orbit, but with NASA shutting down the two cameras observing Earth, now only the camera facing sun will be active giving early warning of solar weather events.
Watch: NASA to shut eyes of satellite viewing Earth
Office of Education to be terminated
NASA’s Office of Education, which received $100 million in 2017, also gets the axe. It was stated to be eliminated last year too, but survived after receiving bipartisan support by lawmakers in the House and Senate.
NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot had defended the decision at the hearings by saying the decision was the outcome of an assessment on how the agency could do its outreach activities more efficiently. “We felt we could balance them better… We felt like, in the balance of things, we could do this more effectively, in a different way.”
Spotlight on Moon
All said and done, the budget request is more about NASA’s plans to return astronauts to the moon, something that President Donald Trump had harped on time and again ever since he took over.
As per the new plans, NASA will launch a “power and propulsion space tug,” a component of NASA’s planned outpost in near-moon space, in 2022. And astronauts will launch on a mission around the moon, using the agency’s Orion capsule and Space Launch System megarocket, in 2023.
The budget request continues support for high-profile planetary missions such as the Mars Rover and Europa Clipper which would investigate the habitability of one of Jupiter’s moons, Europa. However, it nixes the planned Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), which was slated to be launched around 2020 for studying mysterious dark energy, alien planets and a range of other cosmic phenomena. The reason for nixing WFIRST is “its significant cost and higher priorities within NASA.”
It must be mentioned here that the budget request is just a proposal and has to be approved by Congress. And like last year, there may be some significant changes in the offing, if Senator Bill Nelson (D-Fla) is to be believed. “The administration’s budget for NASA is a nonstarter. If we’re ever going to get to Mars with humans on board and return them safely, then we need a larger funding increase for NASA,” Nelson said in a statement to the Miami Herald.
The proposal to end funding for International Space Station will not go down nicely with both the parties. Last week, Senator Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) had stated he hoped recent reports of NASA’s decision to end funding of the station “prove as unfounded as Bigfoot.” He said the decision was the result of “numskulls” at the Office of Management and Budget, according to the Washington Post report. “As a fiscal conservative, you know one of the dumbest things you can to is cancel programs after billions in investment when there is still serious usable life ahead,” he said.
Nelson was quoted saying, “The proposal would also end support for the International Space Station in 2025 and make deep cuts to popular education and science programs,” he added. “Turning off the lights and walking away from our sole outpost in space at a time when we’re pushing the frontiers of exploration makes no sense.”