Marion Renault The Columbus Dispatch
CLEVELAND — The year 2017 — with the great American eclipse, a Nobel Prize for gravitational wave research from two black holes colliding and the discovery of seven Earth-sized, star-tethered planets — was an exciting one for space scientists and enthusiasts alike.
And the Trump administration‘s 2019 blueprint budget, released Monday, gave NASA administrators hope for more groundbreaking space science to come.
The White House‘s proposal would boost NASA’s budget to a total of nearly $19.9 billion for fiscal year 2019, up $370 million from the current year’s allocation under the budget deal reached in Congress earlier this month.
In the blueprint, the administration instructs NASA to refocus its activities toward exploration and develop public-private initiatives to phase out certain existing programs.
“This budget places NASA and the U.S. once again at the forefront of leading a global effort to advance humanity’s future in space,” acting administrator Robert Lightfoot said at a State of NASA news conference in Huntsville, Alabama. “It reflects the administration’s confidence that America will lead the way back to the moon and take the next giant leap from where we made that first small step for humanity nearly 50 years ago.”
Not everyone, however, is happy about the federal government‘s plan to end funding for the International Space Station by 2025. As part of the proposal, the government would set aside $150 million to encourage commercial development.
Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat who rocketed into orbit in 1986, said “turning off the lights and walking away from our sole outpost in space” makes no sense.
Retired NASA historian and Smithsonian curator Roger Launius notes that any such move will affect all the other countries involved in the space station; Russia is a major player, as is Europe, Japan and Canada. “I suspect this will be a major aspect of any decisions about (the Space Station‘s) future,” Launius wrote in an email.
NASA has spent close to $100 billion on the orbiting outpost since the 1990s. The first piece was launched in 1998, and the complex was essentially completed with the retirement of NASA‘s space shuttles in 2011.
The White House‘s proposal also would expand the budget for NASA’s Cleveland-area Glenn Research Center to its largest amount in at least seven years, said director Janet Kavandi. Its overall proposed 2019 budget — $115 million — is $39 million more than its 2017 funding levels.
“We are one of the few agencies that have actually grown, and that’s a reflection of (the president’s) trust,” Kavandi said. “In one sense it is something that makes America great.”
Still, the White House’s blueprint is just that.
Congress controls the federal purse strings, and both the House and Senate will have to craft and pass the final budget for 2019.
“We’ve always gotten good confidence from Congress on our ability to deliver,” NASA Glenn Chief Financial Officer Larry Sivic said. “I’m not really worried that anything will be pulled out from underneath us.”
Other takeaways from the Trump administration’s vision for NASA:
Head back to moon and beyond
The plan instructs NASA to go back to exploring life on and around the moon.
About $10.5 billion of NASA’s budget would go toward returning humans to the moon for long-term exploration and utilization, followed by human missions to Mars and other destinations.
Lightfoot said NASA aims to launch part of a moon-orbiting platform by 2022. Glenn is overseeing the development of the Deep Space Gateway’s foundational, power-propulsion element.
The lunar outpost would host astronauts and be used to travel to the moon‘s surface.
The lunar landers and Deep Space Gateway fall under an $889 million allocation for advanced exploration systems.
The budget envisions humans will be back on the moon by the mid-2020s after a more than 40-year absence from its surface.
Scrap or trim some NASA programs
For the second year in a row, the Trump administration has called out NASA’s education program, which funds grants and scholarship programs for students.
Under the proposal, internship and fellowships would remain but educational outreach would no longer be carried out by a central office.
“I don’t think it’s really the choice of the agency,” Kavandi said. “It’s very important for us to influence the next generation. We do that by default, because what we do is so exciting and inspiring.”
The blueprint also trims NASA’s earth science program, which includes climate research, instruments and missions.
Reinvest in NASA in the next decades
In his State of NASA speech, Lightfoot depicted his own vision for 2030.
By then, he said, a growing number of people will be working on the moon, where scouting and resource prospecting would be well underway. Others would be working on commercial platforms in Earth’s lower orbit.
Preparations for deep-space exploration would include figuring out how to generate oxygen in Mars’ atmosphere and probing Jupiter’s moon Europa for evidence of possible biological life.
A solar probe would paint a better understanding of space weather and on Earth, and a new fleet of supersonic passenger planes would hit the skies.
“Yes, you’ll have your Jetson car,” Lightfoot said.
And reinvestment in NASA would play a crucial role in that vision, he said.
“This is what we can accomplish with this budget. None of this is out of our reach,” Lightfoot said. “It makes us reach higher than we thought we could.”
Information from The Associated Press was included in this story.