Monday, November 14, 2016

The Election and NASA’s Planetary Program

Following the results of the Presidential election, I’m sure that many of you are wondering how planetary exploration will fare at NASA over the next few years.

The short answer is that nobody knows.

However, I can discuss some of the factors that may decide that question. 

The bottom line will be how well the program is funded.  Depending on how political machinations turn out, I can see situations in which the planetary program could receive substantially less, about the same, or substantially more than it does this year.

As SpacePolicyOnline nicely describes, the first key question will be whether the Republican party, which controls both houses of Congress, decides to institute major budget cuts to the overall discretionary budget.  The federal budget can be described as a retirement and medical benefits system (e.g., Social Security and Medicare), the military, interest payments, and everything else (discretionary funding).  Discretionary spending in Fiscal Year 2015 was approximately 16% of federal spending (the percentage for Fiscal Year 2016 would be similar).  Since 1990, NASA’s share of the Federal budget has been relatively flat with a slow decline and today represents around 0.5%.  If total Federal spending declines, spending on NASA seems likely to decline, too.

Source: Wikipedia
For reasons too complex to go into here (but see the SpacePolicyOnline article), one group of Republicans in the past year has wanted to institute major cuts to discretionary spending.  If that happens, NASA’s overall spending number will compete for remaining funds with spending on many other discretionary items (for example, the FBI, National Parks, infrastructure spending). In this case, I think NASA’s top number would likely be cut significantly.  I also think it would be unlikely that the planetary program would be spared cuts.

However, if the eventual political consensus is to keep overall discretionary spending at similar levels as recent years (true political revolutions are rare), then other political factors will matter.  The first is what level of priority the new Trump government will give to NASA.  So far, all we have are opinion pieces written by two people associated with the Trump campaign.  The Trump administration’s actual policy will emerge in the coming months to a year or so as the new administration finally gets around to thinking about small federal agencies around which there is no major political focus.  I’m sure that whatever policy statements emerge will laud NASA and proclaim lofty goals (NASA is politically like apple pie; almost everyone professes to love its mission and inspiration).  Real policy, though, is stated by funding.  Will the words be backed by money?  Both the Bush and Obama administrations, for example, had lofty public goals for NASA – return to the moon, go to Mars – but their budgets kept NASA’s human spaceflight program firmly in low orbit.  Look to the President’s proposed annual budgets rather than to speeches.

Whatever NASA top line funding number emerges, I suspect that the planetary program will retain or potentially increase its share of that budget.  Exploring the solar system has had strong Congressional support, most notably from Congressman Culberson of Texas, chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies.  In addition, based on the stated science priorities of both President-elect Trump and Republicans in Congress, the NASA’s program to study the Earth is likely to suffer major cuts and the planetary program seems likely to benefit.  (For the record, I am strongly opposed to cuts to the Earth Science program.  Humans are dramatically changing our planet whether you look at increases in greenhouse gasses, the nitrogen cycle, or the transformation of whole ecosystems to name but a few.  Ignoring these changes is like pretending that your illness will go away if you don’t take medical tests.)

I personally expect that the status quo will persist for the coming year as the new administration and Congress settle in.  I expect that we will begin to learn how NASA as a whole and the planetary program within that whole will fare starting in 2018.  Given the lag in budgets and eventual mission launches, the final annual budget numbers during the next four years will determine the planetary program of the mid-2020s.