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NASA Budget Great for Mars Mission, But Looks Can be Deceiving

NASA Budget Great for Mars Mission, But Looks Can be Deceiving

President Trump’s proposed budget isn’t as generous to the space agency as it may appear to be at first glance.

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Last week, President Trump signed legislation that will give NASA $19.1 billion in funding for the fiscal year 2018, down 0.8% from the 2017 budget. The two-page blueprint highlights the administration’s vision for future NASA projects, which includes deep-space exploration (both human and robotic) and increased partnerships with civilian space companies for near-Earth operations and deep-space habitation. This most likely refers to NASA’s NextSTEP-2 program, which would put a base on the moon, using it as a jumping point for “beyond cislunar” missions.

Fig. 1

Funding for NASA’s 2018 fiscal year rises by 0.8% from 2017 with $19.1 billion, giving the go-ahead for Mars exploration by 2020—but it cuts other programs in the process. (Courtesy: NASA)

As for the civilian companies, NASA has already contracted with SpaceX and Boeing to ferry astronauts and cargo to the ISS. The agency has also tapped Bigelow Aerospace to produce inflatable habitats, which recently saw testing on the space station last June.

The funding will also support efforts to create commercial over-land supersonic flights, with $624 million allocated to research and development. $1.9 billion will go toward NASA’s Planetary Science program with the robotic exploration of the solar system—including repeated flybys of Jupiter’s moon Europa, which may harbor life in the water beneath its surface. That portion of the money will also go toward sending another rover mission to Mars in 2020.

$3.7 billion in funding will go to the continued development of the Orion crew vehicle, along with the Space Launch System for deep-space exploration (including manned Mars missions). Strangely, $1.8 billion will go to NASA’s Earth Science Division to “support the priorities of the science and applications communities.” What makes this strange is that Trump released an op-ed during the campaign stating his desire to kill that particular department and anything related to climate change.

Fig. 2

NASA’s budget allows for the continued development of the Orion CEV. (Courtesy: Wikipedia)

Additional funding also goes to strengthen and safeguard NASA’s cyber-security and IT infrastructure—which isn’t a bad idea, considering the number of times government entities have been attacked over the last decade.

That’s the good news. Now for the bad:

Four Earth science missions, including PACE, OCO-3, DSCOVR Earth-viewing instruments, and CLARREO Pathfinder (all related to climate monitoring) have been cut, along with reduced funding for Earth science research grants. While the Europa flybys will happen, landing on it will not, as there’s no funding in the books for a multi-billion dollar mission (disappointing, to say the least).

NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission—which would involve visiting an asteroid, taking a multi-ton sample, and putting it into a stable orbit around the moon so astronauts could explore it and send samples of it back to Earth—is also on the cutting-room floor. On that same floor is NASA’s Office of Education, a division that develops STEM curriculum for students and teachers, administers grants and support to science museums, and provides public reach-out services to underprivileged kids interested in aerospace careers (among a host of others).

Fig. 3

NASA’s ARM is one of the few projects that will be canceled, according to the new budget. (Courtesy: NASA)

The budget is also looking to “restructure” a robotic satellite refueling demonstration to reduce its cost as well, as support the commercial satellite industry. This is probably referencing NASA’s Restore-L project, which uses robotic spacecraft to repair and refuel aging satellites, essentially extending their lifespans. It’s unclear what the details are behind this restructuring, but $88 million will be cut from the project.

That covers everything on the two-page outline submitted by the Trump administration. However a longer, more detailed bill will not be released until May and may contain additional information concerning existing and future NASA projects. It also has to pass through Congress before the budget can be authorized, and changes may come from that, as well.

On that note, not everyone is happy about the president’s budget outline, especially when it concerns NASA’s additional funding to get a manned mission to Mars in the outlined timeframe. Elon Musk is one of those displeased, and made his feelings known on Twitter shortly after the outline was released.

Responding to a tweet from Recode (a tech news website) co-founder Kara Swisher, who stated, “Somewhere @elonmusk is smiling,” Musk fired back stating “I am not. This bill changes almost nothing about what NASA is doing. Existing programs stay in place, and there is no added funding for Mars.” He goes on to say, “Perhaps there will be some future bill that makes a difference for Mars, but this is not it.”

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