Untangling the Numbers in NASA’s Supplemental Budget Request

Credit: NASA

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

In seeking a $1.6 billion increase in NASA’s budget for fiscal year 2020 to land astronauts on the moon in 2024, the Trump Administration has claimed that “no NASA programs were cut” to accommodate the new spending.  However, to quote Obi-wan Kenobi, this is only true from a certain point of view.

The Administration’s original FY 2020 request would cut NASA’s current $21.5 billion budget by $488 million while shifting funds from other space agency programs to the Artemis lunar program. Thus, the claim of no cuts can likely be interpreted as no reductions beyond what the Trump Administration has already proposed.

Further, the overall increase is not as large as it sounds. The supplemental request would increase NASA’s budget by $1.1 billion from its current $21.5 billion to $22.6 billion.

Congress, which will ultimately decide spending levels, has not weighed in on either the original budget request or the supplemental one. It’s worth keeping in mind that legislators have ignored Trump’s previous attempts to reduce NASA’s budget.

Let’s dive into the numbers a bit deeper by looking at the budget request the Trump Administration submitted in March.

(In Thousands of Dollars)
Space Launch System2,150,0002,150,0001,775,400(374,600)
Exploration R&D395,000958,0001,580,000622,000
— Lunar Orbital Platform?450,000821,400371,400
— Human Research?145,000140,000(5,000)
— Advanced Cislunar and Surface Capabilities?116,500363,000246,500
Exploration Ground Systems545,000592,800400,100(192,700)
Space Operations4,751,5004,639,1004,285,700
— Commercial ISS and Low Earth Orbit Activities ?40,000150,00090,000
— Planetary Science2,227,9002,758,5002,622,100(136,400)
— Earth Science1,921,0001,931,0001,779,800(151, 200)
— Astrophysics850,4001,191,600844,800(346,800)
— James Webb Space Telescope533,700304,600352,60048,000
— Heliophysics688,500720,000704,500(15,500)
STEM ENGAGEMENT (Previously Education)100,000110,0000 (110,000)

So, let’s take a look at the major areas that the initial request cuts. These include:

  • Science: -$602 million
  • Space Launch System (SLS): -$374.6 million
  • Space Operations: -$353.4 million
  • Exploration Ground Systems: -$192.7 million
  • STEM Engagement: – $110 million (zeroed out)
  • Orion Multi-purpose Crew Capsule: – $83.3 million
  • Aeronautics: – $55.1 million

The proposed cuts in SLS, Orion and the Exploration Ground Systems needed to support them totaled $650.6 million. NASA, however, says that SLS and Orion are crucial to landing astronauts at the south pole of the moon on the third flight of the system in 2024.

In the amended request, NASA restores $651 million in cuts to SLS and Orion. The budget document does not include details on the Exploration Ground Systems.

In the original request, the Administration increased spending on the orbiting Lunar Gateway by $371.4 million to $821.4 million. The supplement request eliminates $321 million of that increase.

NASA officials said on Monday they would be scaling back the initial gateway to a power/propulsion module and a small habitat module with docking ports. The plan is to have astronauts fly to the gateway and transfer to a lunar lander that is already docked at the facility.  A male and female astronaut would then travel to the lunar south pole to make the first landing since Apollo 17 in December 1972.

The budget shifts the full build out of the Lunar Gateway into the 2024-2028 period. NASA officials said international partners and even private companies would be welcome to add to the facility before  then. International partners — including Canada, Japan, Europe and Russia — are expected to provide additional modules and robotic capabilities to the gateway.

The supplemental request designates $1 billion to accelerate work on the lunar lander. In March, the Trump Administration requested $363 million for Advanced Cislunar and Surface Capabilities.

“This acquisition strategy will allow NASA to purchase an integrated commercial lunar lander that will transport astronauts from lunar orbit to the lunar surface and back,” NASA said in its summary.

NASA is also requesting an additional $132 million ” to advance key precursor capabilities on the lunar surface. This includes various exploration technologies like solar electric propulsion and a demonstration converting polar ice to water.”

The Science budget, which was cut $602 million in the initial request, would receive $90 million “to enable increased robotic exploration of the Moon’s polar regions in advance of a human mission,” NASA added.

How all this will go over with Congress remains to be seen. On the plus side, supporters of SLS and Orion will be pleased to see cuts in those two programs restored. They will also be happy to with NASA’s assurances that these programs are vital to landing astronauts on the lunar surface.

However, legislators have expressed skepticism about landing astronauts on the moon by 2024, which is four years earlier than originally planned.

Members of Congress have also expressed dismay over the proposed $602 million in the Science budget. Even with $90 million restored for lunar science, a reduction of more than $512 million may not sit very well.

It is worth noting that Congress has resisted the Trump Administration’s previous attempts to cut the Earth Science budget. The initial request cuts $151.2 million from that program.

Congress has resisted the Trump Administration’s previous attempts to zero out the STEM Engagement budget.

On Monday, NASA officials said the moon program would inspire students to study STEM subjects. They also said they did not know where the additional money would come from to fund the supplemental appropriation.

Hours later, The Washington Post provided a partial answer: Pell grants that provide tuition assistance to poor students attending colleges and universities.

It will be interesting to see how well that goes over with Congress.