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NASA is developing a heavy-lift rocket known as the Space Launch System, shown in this artist’s conception. Spending in the category that includes the SLS and the Orion deep-space capsule would be trimmed in the budget proposed for the next fiscal year. (Credit: NASA)

Christmas has come and gone, and so has a bump in NASA’s spending plan: The agency’s proposed $19 billion budget for the next fiscal year, released today, represents a $260 million decline from this year’s level.

The money set aside for developing a new crew vehicle and heavy-lift rocket for deep-space exploration would be reduced by hundreds of millions of dollars, virtually guaranteeing a tussle with Congress.

Despite the reductions, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said the agency’s vision for space exploration and technology is undimmed.

“The state of our NASA is as strong as it’s ever been – and when I say ‘our,’ I really mean it,” Bolden told a gathering of agency employees at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Virginia. He used that “strong” assessment as a frequent refrain for the last “State of NASA” address of the Obama administration.

In a fact sheet, NASA said the funding levels laid out in its request for the budget year beginning in October would keep America’s space effort moving toward a goal of sending astronauts toward Mars and its moons in the 2030s.

“The budget supports developing the technologies that will make future space missions more capable and affordable, partnering with the private sector to transport crew and cargo to the International Space Station, continuing the development of the Orion crew vehicle, Space Launch System and Exploration Ground Systems that will one day send astronauts beyond low Earth orbit,” NASA said.

NASA said the budget proposal was sufficient to support a 2020 rover landing to Mars and to launch a robotic spacecraft in the 2020s to Europa, an ice-covered moon of Jupiter that’s thought to harbor a liquid ocean. However, there were questions about how ambitious the Europa mission would be.

The budget also supports public-private partnerships for developing “habitation capabilities near the moon.”

Like most budgets, this one is certain to be modified as it makes its way through Congress. The prospects for getting President Barack Obama’s full $4.1 trillion spending plan approved in its current form are particularly dim because it’s a presidential election year. Congress isn’t likely to take action until after the vote in November.

Thus, it’s far too early to say whether NASA’s 0.46 percent share of the total proposed budget will go up or down. It went up during the prolonged deliberations over the current fiscal year’s budget. Those deliberations resulted in a $19.3 billion appropriation in December’s omnibus spending bill. That was $753 million more than what the White House asked for.

Today’s program-by-program budget snapshot has pluses as well as minuses:

  • Space science: The Obama administration’s budget proposal would set aside $5.601 billion for space science, which is tens of millions of dollars more than the current level. Planetary science gets $1.519 billion, which is less than its current level, but there are increases for earth science, astrophysics and solar physics. The money allotted for small-scale CubeSat missions, including a plan to build a small-satellite constellation for Earth observation, would be tripled.
  • Human exploration operations: The total here is $8.413 billion, hundreds of millions of dollars less than the current level. The operations side, including support of the space station and commercial space transportation, would actually get more ($5.076 billion vs. $5.029 billion this year). But exploration would get significantly less ($3.337 billion as opposed to $4.03 billion for 2016), highlighted by reductions in spending for NASA’s next-generation Orion space capsule and heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket. Bolden insisted that NASA would “continue to make great progress” on Orion and SLS – but the budget proposal already has sparked worries among the program’s supporters.
  • Space technology: This category would get $827 million, a significant increase from the current $686.5 million. That arguably helps make up for the downsized exploration budget, since the money would be used to develop solar electric propulsion systems and deep-space communication links for future missions.
  • Aeronautics research: There would be another boost here to support research aimed at making the air transportation system safer, cleaner and more efficient. The proposed spending would rise from the current $640 million to $790 million. The shift puts more emphasis on the somewhat lesser-known mission of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration – the first “A” in the acronym.

The budget also tightens NASA’s education spending from $115 million to $100 million, in addition to eliminating a $37 million education category under space science. It sets aside $3.257 million for safety, security, mission services, construction and environmental compliance efforts.

U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, took aim at the reductions in exploration funding in his response to the budget proposal.

“This imbalanced proposal continues to tie our astronauts’ feet to the ground and makes a Mars mission all but impossible,” Smith said in a statement. “This is not the proposal of an administration that is serious about maintaining America’s leadership in space.”

This report has been revised to reduce rounding errors and provide a more accurate accounting of the budget reduction. Tens of millions here, tens of millions there, and pretty soon you’re talking about real money.

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