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SYFY WIRE Bad Astronomy

Trump's 2018 NASA budget: The good, the bad, and the very, very ugly

By Phil Plait

So, the White House released its preliminary budget for Fiscal Year 2018. It’s an overview, not a detailed listing, but even so, at 62 pages there’s a lot in there to pick apart. It’s being excoriated for its social welfare issues, its unneeded military spending increase and simultaneous devastating State Department cuts, and much more.

I have very strong opinions on all that, obviously, but here, I want to look specifically at NASA’s proposed budget. President Trump hasn’t said much about NASA, and this first budget proposal can give us insight into what he and his administration plan. Mind you, this is not an official budget. In fact, I expect the actual budget, once passed, will look different from what's proposed here ... though I worry it won’t look different enough. But this is just a preliminary budget, a jumping-off point, if you will (and a metaphor that is eerily appropriate). The Senate and the House will put together their versions, and hammer out differences, and then submit it to the President to sign. It’s entirely possible a lot of the more Draconian cuts may yet be reversed.

Having said that, at first glance the budget for NASA in the proposal doesn’t look too bad: $19.1 billion, down just a smidge from last year’s expenditure. But the devil, as they say, is in the details.

First, I’ll note that, as usual, The Planetary Society has a nice brief review of the NASA budget. You’ll get some good details there*. Many other places give an overview as well, like the Washington Post and the LA Times.

Let me start off with a surprise: The budget proposal calls for the cancelation of the Asteroid Redirect Mission...and I’m glad about that. ARM was a 2013 proposal to snag, bag, and tag a small (7-meter) asteroid and tow it to lunar orbit, to be retrieved later for study. It’s splashy, and interesting, and when the idea was first proposed I was supportive, though only cautiously — given NASA’s fixed budget, a big mission like that was bound to impact other areas of research. I later was somewhat more vocal about not liking it so much; at a billion dollars just to get the rock (and not to send astronauts to study it) it seemed more like an excuse to use the Space Launch System rocket and Orion capsule, and not something that was driven by the needs of the scientific community.

SLS launching

So, I actually won’t shed too many tears over this. And while I hate to say it, I suppose I won’t fret too much over the announced $3.7 billion in support of SLS and Orion. At this point, those two vehicles are locked in to NASA’s future, as much as I think they are a colossal waste of time and money, as well as being incredibly risky and not what NASA should be working on. My thoughts on this are on record, and haven’t changed much over the past few years. The only difference now is that they’re far enough along that I don’t think they’ll get canceled, so we’ll have to suck it up and accept that they’ll get built.

At least the proposed budget says it will “support and expand public-private partnerships”, meaning contracting out to companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, Boeing, Orbital ATK, and the like. I still firmly think that this is the future of getting off Earth: NASA as well as other countries’ space agencies have paved the way technologically for decades, and now we can let private companies take it from here building those vehicles, with NASA developing and testing new tech along the way. It works to the skilled advantages of both: NASA’s budget allows them to try avenues that might not work, while companies have the ability to be flexible and develop ways of getting to space more cheaply. We’re still just getting started with this, but it’s working pretty well so far.

Interestingly, there's nothing in the proposal about going back to the Moon or heading onward to Mars. Trump has made noises about returning to the Moon, and given President Obama's desire to see NASA go to Mars I can imagine what Trump thinks of that. We'll have to wait for a detailed budget proposal to know more about that.

Still, the part of the budget that has me scratching my head is this bit: “[This budget] Eliminates the $115 million Office of Education, resulting in a more focused education effort through NASA’s Science Mission Directorate. The Office of Education has experienced significant challenges in implementing a NASA-wide education strategy and is performing functions that are duplicative of other parts of the agency.”

This seems to me to be utter baloney. The education department is a striking success for NASA, and any problems with it have not been so much internal as they are from administrative and legislative fiddling over the years. I worked for years on NASA education grants, and have seen mandates from Congress and the White House change how NASA is supposed to implement educational efforts. Some have helped, some not so much.

Eliminating the education wing of NASA is a huge mistake. Seriously huge. Read what they do and tell me this is a good thing to eliminate. I’ll note that, over the years, the Obama administration also proposed cuts to NASA education (for example, budgets proposed in 2012, 2013, and 2015), and, to the best of my knowledge, no clear explanations were ever given. The good news is that, over the years, Congress has generally restored money to NASA education in their version of the budget, and I can hope this year they’ll do the same. But relying on Congress, this Congress, to save the day is a difficult prospect to put faith in.


On the good news side again, there’s $1.9 billion set aside for planetary exploration, which I like. Obama kept bafflingly cutting the planetary budget, with Congress rightly restoring it (again, I was never able to suss out a logical reason for this; planetary exploration is one of NASA’s strongest and highest-profile endeavors). This includes support for the mission to Jupiter’s icy (and watery) moon, the Europa Clipper. I was surprised to see the lander aspect was not supported. While a lander is not critical to the mission (and would be relatively expensive), it’s a big part, and with a potentially huge scientific payoff. It’s also the baby of (Texas GOP) Rep. John Culberson, so I’ll be curious what the Congressional version of this budget will say.

Finally, we get to Earth Science. This proposal cuts it overall by about $100 million (in a just shy of $2 billion total), and it does so in large part by axing four missions: DSCOVR, OCO-3, PACE, and CLARREO Pathfinder. You may not be shocked to learn that all four are important climate missions. Given the maniacal denial of the reality of climate change by Trump and essentially everyone he has put in a position of power (including Scott Pruitt, the head of the EPA), cutting these missions in the budget was as easily predictable as it is ridiculously short-sighted, and, frankly, dangerous.

The Earth —and you may want to sit down for this shocking news— is a planet, and therefore something NASA should study. Moreover, it’s the one we live on, the only one we can live on for the moment, and one NASA spends a lot of effort trying to understand. The claim made by many in the climate deny-o-sphere is that NASA should look out, not down, but that’s wrong before it’s even uttered: After all, the first A in NASA is for Aeronautics. NASA’s mission is far more than just space exploration.

Moon photobombs Earth

And one of space exploration’s greatest gifts to humanity has been perspective. We understand Earth better by getting outside it, being able to find its place among other celestial objects. That includes the effects humanity is having on it.

I wouldn’t expect the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) to be able to pick up the slack, either: Deep cuts are proposed for it as well (of course), and the GOP members in Congress have been cheerleading this sort of thing for years.

It is this aspect of the coming budget that has me most up in arms. We are heating this planet up, and that is already affecting us, and will only get worse as time goes on. With Trump in the White House and the GOP running both sides of Congress, this is more than worrisome. It’s potentially catastrophic.

I urge you to a) read the budget proposal, and 2) call/fax your Senators and Representative to tell them what you think (faxing can be done over the ‘net, too; I keep several draft letters on my computer desktop for easy editing and sending). If we keep the pressure up, Congress may yet be able to prevent the White House from driving NASA climate science over a cliff. But that won’t happen unless you make your voice heard.

* The article author, Jason Davis, notes that NASA gets two pages out of 62 total, but really it’s not even that; without the header image and executive summary it’s really about one page. But even then that’s a higher ratio than NASA’s budget compared to the total budget: NASA gets only about 0.5% of the US spending. Imagine if it got 1.6 % (1/62)! We’d have a base on the Moon and Mars soon enough…