There’s overwhelming consensus President Trump’s first budget is controversial. Programs and departments across the board, except the Department of Defense, are under the microscope for eye-popping cuts. And before anyone claims it saves money, the budget does nothing to reduce the deficit. Even the Hubble couldn’t find an alternative fact to get this in the black.
Not every cut is bad, and some could benefit NASA in redirecting the funds to other missions. But the education program? Really?
NASA Education Program
NASA is escaping the most extreme cuts, but if the budget stands (not likely), projects will be lost. The biggest eyebrow-raising cut is the complete elimination of NASA’s education program. I’d act shocked, but it seems par for the course considering the Education Secretary.
How much will that trim off the federal budget? $115 million (FY 2016). That money serves as a centralized hub for all of the agency’s educational activities. Its mission is to engage students and get them interested in science and engineering.
Kids meeting astronauts at school? Gone. Space camp? Gone. The National Space Grant and Fellowship Program? Gone. NASA’s Minority University Research and Education Programs? Do we even have to ask? The budget proposes all of this fall under the purview of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate but doesn’t explain how. Something about it being beautiful and nice.
Earth Science Cuts
It was expected before the budget was released. Bob Walker, the President’s space policy advisor during the campaign, wanted NASA to shift its focus to exploring space only. Why study Earth? We can see it from our house, right Bob? The cuts aren’t overly drastic, but hit upcoming missions including PACE – a spacecraft designed to orbit Earth to study global ocean color and monitor its health.
Another is the CLARREO Pathfinder, a spacecraft designed to produce accurate climate records. That’s par for the course from this administration.
And then there’s the wasteful cut. President Trump’s budget calls for the DSCOVR satellite to turn off all ‘Earth-viewing instruments.’ Mind you; the satellite has been up in space since 2015. It’s operated in conjunction with NOAA to constantly monitor the Earth and measure solar wind. Instruments to be turned off include EPIC, which provides images of the sunlit side of Earth, and the NISTAR, which measures irradiance over the Earth’s surface for “for climate science applications.”
So, the satellite is already in orbit at taxpayer expense. The Trump administration wants it only partially used moving forward. How much is NASA asking for to operate this money pit? $1.2 million. He can stay at home for a weekend, and NASA gets to keep the instruments turned on.
There are mixed feelings about this proposed cut. NASA is already sending a probe to Jupiter’s moon Europa. In the FY2016 budget, it called for a lander to be added to the flyby. Europa is thought to have a massive subsurface ocean, giving scientists another chance at possibly discovering alien life.
NASA removed the lander from the probe mission making it a standalone mission that is still in the conception stage. It’s not a huge loss, and it has hopes of surviving. Rep. John Culberson of Texas has championed this project. He’s a Republican, so don’t count the Europa mission out just yet.
Asteroid Redirect Mission
Here’s where we find a cut that makes sense. NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission never had many fans because it seems like a waste of money. It robotically retrieves a piece of an asteroid and brings it closer to the moon.
The idea is that we could then send people to visit the asteroid in what would be test cases for an eventual Mars mission. Ambitious, but it fell prey to costs. $1.4 billion for the robotic part of the mission alone.
And then there’s the question of how does dragging an asteroid near the moon represent putting people on Mars? Maybe dry runs for Harry Stamper and company as a ‘just in case,’ but it’s hard to envision. Congress isn’t a fan, and neither are a lot of scientists, including NASA’s own Small Bodies Assessment Group. If anything gets the ax in the budget, it’ll be the ARM.
Will NASA See Cuts?
It’s easy to get worked up over the cuts as ignorant and ‘what the hell are they doing?’ This is obviously their first time writing a budget. And then you have to sell it.
Yesterday saw the pitfalls of that. During the daily press briefing, Mick Mulvaney, Trump’s budget architect, said feeding kids after school had no discernable impacts on performance. Let that sink in. Kids in rural PA can’t eat because they didn’t pass tests. Cuts to Meals on Wheels is an act of compassion towards taxpayers. The hits kept coming.
Someone didn’t pass their Trump University course.
It’ll be ok, NASA. Telling underprivileged kids and seniors they shouldn’t eat because it’s an act of compassion is the height of incompetence. But, we get a rebuilt military (was already happening) to not police the world. It makes sense when you don’t think about it.
And then there’s Florida and Texas – home to major portions of NASA. When Congress marks up a budget, you can count on those two states being at the top of the list. We just thought the government was dysfunctional. Keep doing your thing NASA. Impress the hell out of us.