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NASA’s About to Have Its Biggest Budget in a Decade

Astronaut Carlos I. Noriega, mission specialist, waves toward his partner, astronaut Joseph R. Tanner during a space walk.

Astronaut Carlos I. Noriega, mission specialist, waves toward his partner, astronaut Joseph R. Tanner during a space walk. // NASA

If Con­gress passes the om­ni­bus spend­ing bill that it’s now con­sid­er­ing, the Na­tion­al Aero­naut­ics and Space Ad­min­is­tra­tion will en­joy a lar­ger budget in 2016 than it has had in at least half a dec­ade.

NASA will be able to spend $19.3 bil­lion next year, ac­cord­ing to the budget, an in­crease of more than $1.3 bil­lion over 2015 fund­ing levels. That’s $700 mil­lion more than the fund­ing re­ques­ted by the White House.

“Every­one who sup­ports space should be very pleased with this, if it passes as is,” said Ca­sey Dreier, the dir­ect­or of ad­vocacy at the Plan­et­ary So­ci­ety. “This is a great budget.”

NASA did not re­turn a re­quest for com­ment.

2016 will be a busy year for the U.S. space agency. If all goes well, the geo­lo­gic­al mis­sion In­Sight will land on the sur­face of Mars, the ro­bot­ic or­bit­er Juno will reach Jupiter, and OSIRIS-REx will launch from Earth. OSIRIS aims to even­tu­ally touch down on the sur­face of the as­ter­oid Ben­nu, spend al­most two years there, then send a cap­sule home to this plan­et with as­ter­oid samples.

All three of these mis­sions are plan­et­ary-sci­ence mis­sions, housed in the only NASA di­vi­sion which vis­its worlds bey­ond our own. The New Ho­ri­zons probe that vis­ited Pluto this year was also a plan­et­ary-sci­ence mis­sion. Dreier noted that the 2016 budget re­stores his­tor­ic­ally nor­mal levels of fund­ing to NASA plan­et­ary sci­ence, which had seen its budget sliced by 25 per­cent in the early part of this dec­ade.

Be­cause of those cuts, no new plan­et­ary-sci­ence mis­sions will fly from the end of 2016 to the be­gin­ning of 2020. Dreier said this was “the longest gap in plan­et­ary sci­ence in at least 20 years.”

At the end of that peri­od, as well, the one-year Juno mis­sion at Jupiter and the 11-year-old Cas­sini-Huy­gens mis­sion at Sat­urn will draw to a close.

“For the first time since the early 1970s, the U.S. will not have a ro­bot­ic pres­ence in the gi­ant plan­ets of the out­er sol­ar sys­tem” at that time, said Dreier.

After 2020, NASA is ex­pec­ted to launch ro­bot­ic mis­sions to Mars and Europa, a moon of Jupiter be­lieved to be more amen­able to life than oth­er worlds in the sol­ar sys­tem. (A Con­gres­sion­al re­port at­tached to the 2016 budget en­cour­aged NASA to make the Europa mis­sion a rover, rather than a lander or an or­bit­er. Dreier said he was not sure wheth­er NASA would obey the re­port.)

Bey­ond plan­et­ary sci­ence, the com­ing years are likely to be busy for NASA.

In 2017, the agency hopes to com­plete its com­mer­cial-crew de­vel­op­ment pro­gram with SpaceX and Boe­ing, which will once again launch al­low crewed mis­sions to fly to the In­ter­na­tion­al Space Sta­tion from Amer­ic­an soil. It also hopes to ad­vance its Space Launch Sys­tem, the largest U.S. rock­et sys­tem con­struc­ted since the Apollo era’s Sat­urn V. The Space Launch Sys­tem will per­mit crewed mis­sions to travel past the moon and ro­bot­ic mis­sions to reach gas gi­ants and the out­er sol­ar sys­tem without us­ing the grav­ity sling­shot of Earth or Venus.  

The com­mer­cial-crew de­vel­op­ment re­ceives $1.2 bil­lion, as much fund­ing as it will ever need in one year, in the pro­posed 2016 budget. The Space Launch Sys­tem will re­ceive $2 bil­lion.

One of the few di­vi­sions of NASA to re­ceive less fund­ing than re­ques­ted by the White House is Earth sci­ence. That field stud­ies many parts of our home world, in­clud­ing its at­mo­sphere, geo­logy, and hy­dro­logy, and it also in­cludes NASA’s cli­mate di­vi­sion. Earth sci­ence will get $1.921 bil­lion over­all, an in­crease of $149 mil­lion from last year’s budget.

Dreier said that des­pite be­ing fun­ded be­low Pres­id­ent Obama’s re­quest, 2016 would see the largest Earth sci­ence budget in at least five years.

“NASA is per­en­ni­ally un­der­fun­ded,” he told me. “People say it has 20 pounds of mis­sions in a 10-pound bag. The na­tion asks it to do all its stuff and then gives it half the money that it needs.”

Back in Oc­to­ber, the Plan­et­ary So­ci­ety, the world’s largest space-sci­ence ad­vocacy group, put to­geth­er the best NASA budget it could ima­gine. It dubbed this budget the “every­body wins” scen­ario. The NASA budget un­veiled this week, Dreier said, con­tained the same amount of money as that fanci­ful Oc­to­ber budget.

“I don’t of­ten do this with a smile on my face,” he said. He had one today.

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