Out of all the federal agencies that received budget plans from President Donald Trump yesterday, NASA fared pretty well. The space agency is only facing a 0.8 percent cut in its overall budget — a relatively mild change compared to the Environmental Protection Agency, which could see its funding slashed by 31 percent.
But packed within NASA’s small budget decrease are some pretty sizable cuts. A few major upcoming missions are canceled, and NASA’s entire education program, which is responsible for outreach and grants, is eliminated. The budget request also proposes wasting technologies already in space.
Some of these cuts could have a positive impact on NASA, while others could deprive students and the science community of the space agency’s expertise. Here are the biggest cuts to NASA ranked from “This is good actually” to “What the hell are you doing?”
Canceling the Asteroid Redirect Mission
Out of all the cuts under the new budget request, this one will probably make the most people happy. NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission — an initiative to robotically retrieve a piece of an asteroid and bring it into the vicinity of the Moon — never had many fans.
The concept was born from an ambitious goal that President Barack Obama set for NASA in 2010: send people to visit an asteroid in its natural orbit. The idea was that this kind of mission would serve as a good practice run for sending people to Mars someday. Over time, though, it became clear that a crewed mission to an asteroid would be extremely costly and not very feasible to pull off.
So in 2013, NASA came up with the idea of sending a robotic spacecraft to an asteroid in order to wrangle a large boulder off of it. The vehicle would then take the boulder back to our planetary system and place it in orbit around the Moon. After that, people would launch to the boulder to explore it and gather samples. The new concept was a much more feasible way of fulfilling Obama’s call to visit an asteroid, since it brought the asteroid to us.
Unlike what the name implies, the Asteroid Redirect Mission isn’t about testing out ways to redirect asteroids headed toward Earth, though the spacecraft would attempt to slightly alter the course of the asteroid it visited. Instead, the space agency touts the mission as mostly a way to test out technologies needed to get humans to Mars, especially a new solar propulsion technology. NASA’s acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, said the development of this technology could continue for future missions.
ARM has drawn some fierce criticism from Republicans in Congress and the science community, especially NASA’s Small Bodies Assessment Group, or SBAG. The group is responsible for defining priorities when it comes to studying small space objects and asteroids. They have argued that the mission never really held much scientific value and that it was taking focus away from how we should be studying asteroids. Just the robotic part of the mission was expected to cost $1.4 billion.
“ARM has been a distraction away from the real priority for asteroids: survey the population to reveal natural destinations for the first human flights out of the Earth-Moon cradle, and assess their resource potential and impact hazard,” says Richard Binzel, a planetary scientist at MIT who specializes in asteroids and who has been one of the biggest critics of ARM. “NASA could never answer why plucking an asteroid boulder was relevant to boots on Mars.”
Canceling the Europa lander
As exciting as it would be to land on Jupiter’s moon Europa, defunding this program doesn’t have as big of an impact on NASA as many of the other cuts. First off, we still have a trip to Europa in the works. For a few years now, NASA has been planning to send a spacecraft around the icy moon — a mission called Europa Clipper.
In the budget for fiscal year 2016, Congress included a directive for NASA to add a lander component to the Europa flyby mission. Thought to harbor a massive subsurface ocean, Europa is one of the top candidates for scientists when it comes to the search for alien life. And landing the right instruments on the moon could potentially tell us if biological organisms are present. NASA decided to make the Europa lander its own unique mission, and the space agency recently released a study for what that lander could look like.
While Trump’s budget request doesn’t provide any funding for the lander, chances are the project isn’t dead yet. The Europa lander has been a personal pet project of John Culberson (R-TX), who is in a prime position to bring the mission back. He’s the chairman of the US House Appropriations Subcommittee that’s responsible for coming up with the budget for NASA. And since Congress has the final say in how NASA gets funded, it seems pretty likely that Culberson will bring the lander back from the dead.
Earth science cuts
Cuts to NASA’s Earth science program have long been expected. One of President Trump’s space policy advisors during the campaign, Bob Walker, said NASA should focus more on exploring space than studying our planet. And he openly discussed getting rid of the agency’s Earth science program and transitioning all of its missions to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).
Fortunately, the changes aren’t so drastic, but the program could see some substantial cuts. Earth science would receive $1.8 billion under Trump’s request, as opposed to the $1.9 billion it received in 2016. And with the cuts comes the termination of a few upcoming space missions. That includes PACE, a spacecraft that’s supposed to orbit Earth and study global ocean color, in order to better understand ocean health. Also cut is CLARREO Pathfinder, a proposed spacecraft that will produce highly accurate climate records.
But perhaps the most petty change is the president’s call to turn off the “Earth-viewing instruments” on the DSCOVR satellite, which is currently in space. The Earth-observing probe was first conceived by Vice President Al Gore in the late ‘90s and launched in 2015 on top of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. It’s designed to constantly observe Earth, as well as measure solar wind — particles coming from the Sun that are responsible for geomagnetic storms around our planet.
The DSCOVR satellite is jointly operated by NASA and NOAA, and NOAA hasn’t received any directives yet to stop maintaining the DSCOVR satellite. But NASA is responsible for processing the Earth sensor data gathered from instruments on the probe. The Earth-viewing instruments include EPIC, which provides images of the sunlit side of Earth; the NISTAR instrument measures irradiance over Earth’s surface “for climate science applications.” Shutting off these instruments means a fully functioning satellite that has already cost taxpayers money to put into space will only be partially used. NASA was only hoping to spend $1.2 million on DSCOVR for fiscal year 2018, too, so we’re talking about saving very little money.
“Cutting budget for science missions that are already in space and [are] just beginning their work is quite baffling,” Phil Larson, a former space advisor to President Obama and a former representative for SpaceX, tells The Verge. “The hard and costly part was getting them up there. Why turn turn them off early?”
Elimination of NASA’s education program
This is the area that’s hit hardest by Trump’s budget request. In fact, NASA education, which received $115 million for fiscal year 2016, would be completely eliminated for fiscal year 2018.
As its name implies, NASA education is responsible for doing outreach to students and educators, in order get more people interested in entering science and engineering. One way the education program makes that easier for the space agency is by having a central hub for doing all of the centers’ educational activities. “One of the areas we focused in on was building a strong coordination office at NASA, so each individual science mission and exploration mission didn’t have to figure out its own broader engagement strategy,” Kumar Garg, a former assistant director at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, tells The Verge.
NASA education also does a series of investments in schools — ranging from the K–12 levels to undergraduate and graduate programs — through the National Space Grant and Fellowship Program. The funds from this program are used to support schools and individuals, in order to prepare students for jobs in aerospace and related industries. Education also runs NASA’s Minority University Research and Education Programs, or MUREP, which helps to strengthen minority colleges and educational institutions, so that their students are prepared for STEM fields.
NASA education is also responsible for the much more fun and indirect educational outreach initiatives. Astronauts visiting classrooms? That’s organized through NASA education. Fun space-related camps? Also done through the education program. The president’s budget request calls for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate to pick up the responsibility of coordinating education outreach. But for now, it’s unclear how the directorate will do that.
“Aerospace is a growing sector that provides good quality jobs here in the US. We want to get students from all backgrounds trained in these fields,” says Larson. “STEM education is critical to our long-term competitiveness as a country, and it’s interesting in a year where a movie like Hidden Figures was on the national stage that the administration would de-emphasize the role NASA plays in getting kids excited about space.”
There may be hope yet for NASA’s education program and the other initiatives. This budget request is only the jumping-off point. Both the House and the Senate will ultimately come up with how funds should be appropriated for NASA’s budget later this year. It’s possible that Congress may not be as thrilled with the prospect of losing space grants or wasting working technologies that are already in space.