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The Trump administration wants NASA to move away from doing business in low orbit around the Earth and instead focus on sending astronauts back to the Moon. That’s according to President Donald Trump’s new budget request, out today, which details how the White House wants to fund NASA in fiscal year 2019.
The request instructs NASA to end direct funding for the International Space Station by 2025, while pursuing a coordinated campaign to put humans on the Moon by the mid-2020s, according to a copy of the detailed budget request reviewed by The Verge. However, there aren’t a lot of details for how the Moon plans will play out, and very little funding is allocated for developing all the hardware needed for putting people on the lunar surface again.
The budget confirms previous reporting from The Verge regarding the future of the space station. However, a new internal document from NASA, reported yesterday by The Washington Post, reveals that the space agency does not intend to get rid of the ISS once government funding ends, but instead turn it into something of a commercial real estate venture. The goal is for other countries and private space companies to pick up the slack and “operate certain elements or capabilities” of the ISS, so that NASA still has a platform to conduct science experiments, according to the document. “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 memo states.
That goal is reflected in the new presidential budget request, as well. The Trump administration wants to allocate an additional $150 million for NASA to start a new program that will help commercial companies expand their activities in lower Earth orbit — where the space station resides. However, the specifics of that program and how the money will be used have yet to be defined.
The move to end direct funding for the ISS has already been met with sharp criticism from many in the space industry, as well as legislators from both political parties. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), the ranking member of the Senate committee that oversees NASA, said the administration would “have a fight on their hands” if such a proposal was in the budget request. And Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), chairman of the Senate’s space subcommittee, said in a speech last week that he hoped that reports of ending funding for the ISS by 2025 “prove as unfounded as Bigfoot,” according to Space News.
The ISS has been a valuable tool for NASA over the last two decades, as a way to both collaborate with other nations and companies, as well as test out new technologies in microgravity. The orbiting lab could conceivably last until 2028, which is when some of the vehicle’s components will reach the end of their operational lifetimes. However, ending funding early would help free up funds for the Trump administration’s plans to send humans back to the surface of the Moon.
The budget request calls for NASA to pursue a campaign that “will establish US preeminence to, around, and on the Moon,” but it doesn’t call for any drastic changes to NASA’s programs, so those lunar ambitions may just stay ambitions for some time. One section of the request does include a timeline for how NASA will start investing in lunar landers — a crucial technology needed for human missions to the Moon. The space agency will supposedly start funding small- to medium-sized commercial robotic landers in the next couple of years. Yet NASA won’t start funding development of a large crewed lander until 2023 or 2024.
Meanwhile, NASA will move ahead with its plans to create another space station around the Moon, known as the Deep Space Gateway, by the mid-2020s, according to the budget request. The idea is for this space station to serve as an outpost where astronauts can work and train, as well as travel down to the lunar surface. And the administration wants NASA to partner with commercial space companies to make this happen: for instance, the request directs NASA to use a commercial rocket to launch the module that will power the Gateway. In fact, much of the language in the budget request calls for NASA to pursue commercial partnerships to get humans back to the Moon.
However, there is very little budget allocated for all of the hardware that NASA needs to develop for a lunar mission. The Deep Space Gateway, the lunar landers, and more all seem to fall under a new section called Advanced Exploration Systems, which would receive $889 million for 2019. But it’s not clear how that money will be divided up among the different development programs.
The request would give NASA a top-line budget of $19.892 billion for fiscal year 2019, which is slightly more than the $19.519 billion the space agency received from Congress for 2018. And most of NASA’s big budget programs will more or less receive the same amount of funding; that includes the development of a new massive rocket called the Space Launch System and a new crew capsule called Orion.
Though the administration has threatened to cut Earth Science altogether, the program still receives $1.784 billion under the request, slightly cut from the $1.907 billion it received in 2017. And the request proposes to eliminate the same five Earth Science missions it wanted to get rid of last year. Astrophysics funding is also slashed to $1.185 billion in 2019 from $1.352 billion in 2017, with a proposal to eliminate the WFIRST mission — a space-based observatory that is being developed to study exoplanets and dark energy. (WFIRST has been suffering from cost overruns and NASA has been looking for ways to trim the telescope’s budget.) But Planetary Science, which involves studying and sending missions to other planets and moons in our Solar System, does come out on top, receiving $2.234 billion, up from $1.827 in 2017.
Once again, the administration plans to completely cut NASA’s Education program, which funds grants and scholarship programs for students. The administration tried to do this last year, too, arguing that other NASA programs could absorb those duties instead. However, Congress ultimately decided to defy the administration and fund Education for 2018, and it’s possible the program will be saved again this year.
Now that the budget request is out, it’s a long road ahead until a final budget is confirmed for 2019. Both the House and the Senate will work with these numbers and come up with their own proposals for NASA’s budget, and that could take quite a while. The 2018 budget is still being finalized after lengthy negotiations and two brief government shutdowns. And given the opposition to many of the administration’s plans in the budget request, a contentious battle over NASA’s funding may lie ahead.
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