The White House’s proposed five-year budget plan would provide a bigger boost to commercial space efforts, including a potential handover of operations on the International Space Station by 2025 and private-sector moon landings.
NASA’s $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope is still go for launch next year, and the budget supports the launch of a mission in the 2020s to study Europa, a moon of Jupiter that’s thought to harbor a subsurface ocean and perhaps life. But the next-next-generation WFIRST space telescope would be canceled.
During a “State of NASA” address delivered at Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, acting administrator Robert Lightfoot said eliminating WFIRST was one of the “hard decisions” that had to be made. He said the space agency would be “taking those resources and redirecting them to other agency priorities.”
Lightfoot said another hard decision would result in the elimination of NASA’s Office of Education.
Overall, NASA would receive $19.9 billion for the fiscal year beginning in October, thanks to a prior budget agreement already passed by Congress. That’s $400 million above current levels, with more than half of that money set aside for exploration programs aimed at the moon and eventually Mars.
“We’re once again on a path to the moon, with an eye toward Mars,” Lightfoot said.
It’s not clear, however, how quickly NASA will be able to proceed along that path. The five-year budget scenario calls for NASA’s annual allotment to drop to a flat $19.6 million for the years going out to 2023.
As previously reported, federal funding for the space station would be phased out in 2025, in order to shift more resources to beyond-Earth exploration. One of the options would be to transition operations in low Earth orbit to the private sector, and the budget includes $150 million in fiscal 2019 to support that transition. The annual figure would grow to $225 million in fiscal 2023.
Lightfoot said commercial ventures could provide low-Earth-orbit capabilities “either at the ISS or on standalone platforms that both private sector and NASA can use.” Such platforms have been proposed by companies including Axiom Space, Nanoracks and Bigelow Aerospace.
The spending plan also calls for the development of commercial lunar landers, such as those proposed by ventures ranging from Moon Express and Astrobotic to Amazon billionaire Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin.
In its budget overview, NASA said the plan would bring the first uncrewed launch of the heavy-lift Space Launch System rocket in 2020, and send Americans around the moon in 2023 in an Orion space capsule lofted by the SLS.
NASA said it plans to follow up by putting a crewed outpost, known as the Lunar Orbital Platform Gateway, in orbit around the moon by the early 2020s.
“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,” Lightfoot said.
The proposal is in line with the White House’s recently approved space policy directives, but it sets out an unusually ambitious timeline for creating a moon-orbiting outpost with an unusually flat budget.
Also, it’s merely a proposal. The actual spending plan will have to be approved by Congress. Some lawmakers already have said the plan won’t fly in its present form, primarily because of the plan to cut space station funding.
“If the administration plans to abruptly pull us out of the International Space Station in 2025, they’re going to have a fight on their hands,” Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said in a statement issued last month.
Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, also was harshly critical of the idea. “If numbskulls at OMB [the Office of Management and Budget] persist in putting out such statements, I would note that those statements would be directly contrary to federal statute,” he said last week at the Federal Aviation Administration’s Commercial Space Transportation Conference.
Another snag is that NASA doesn’t yet have a permanent administrator. Confirmation proceedings for President Donald Trump’s nominee, Rep. Jim Bridenstine, R-Okla., have been bottled up in the Senate.