Federal Budget Leaves Future of Space Exploration Uncertain

By Jacob Wang (PO ’21)

The 2019 Budget of the U.S. Government released Monday on February 12, 2018, presents an uncertain picture of the future of the NASA space program. While the overall budget allocated to NASA stayed roughly in the same level as previous years, the Budget made clear US government’s decision to terminate direct financial support for the International Space Station (ISS) by 2025, with a gradually increasing partnership with commercial space companies for its low-orbit operations. Therefore, even though President Trump’s overall monetary allocation for NASA aligns with the limited financial support for space programs from all of his predecessors since Richard Nixon, Trump’s 2019 Budget plan signifies U.S. government’s move to incorporate more commercial partnership; such move may lay the foundation for commercial companies taking the lead in future space developments.

A clear understanding of the current Space policies is contingent on a comprehensive of the history of NASA. On October 3, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite as part of its International Geophysical Year entry. The USSR’s sudden development of space technology alarmed its US counterpart, causing an effect tantamount to Pearl Harbor on the American public opinion. One year later on October 1, 1958, announcing US’ intention to preserve its leadership in “aeronautical and space science and technology,” President Dwight D. Eisenhower created the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), a purely civilian agency. Even though the capacity to set NASA’s agenda and general research orientation lie within the jurisdiction of the President, historically, the Presidents only made minor, if any, changes to what their predecessors had proposed.

While President Eisenhower left an indelible mark on the history as the founder of NASA, President John F Kennedy is perhaps even better remembered by the American public for his manifesto in front of the Congress on May 25, 1961, declaring that the United States’ goal to send an American astronaut to the moon and “return him safely to the earth, before this decade is out,” in part as a response to USSR’s dispatch of the first human to orbit the earth. As shown in a chart below titled “NASA Budget as a Percentage of Federal Budget”, NASA’s budget exponentially increased from President JFK and President Lyndon B Johnson, who used NASA as a tool not only to compete against the Soviet’s leadership in space development, but also to inspire the domestic science education and reinvigorate American morale with this popular symbol of the New Frontier. The generous government support of  NASA took a precipitous decline during Nixon’s presidency: though proudly witnessing the first American and human landing on the moon in his first year into the office, President Nixon subsequently rejected NASA’s ambitious post-Apollo plans of continued Moon-landing missions and Mars exploration project, mainly due to its exorbitant cost. In his statement addressing the space program on March 7, 1970, Nixon maintained that “space expenditures must take their proper place within a rigorous system of national priorities.” Since the Soviet Union lagged behind in its space development, the US no longer see the Soviets as a rival for the “space race.” Since the Nixon administration, the Congress-approved budget for NASA has been significantly reduced and stayed relatively even.

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In his Presidential Memorandum on Reinvigorating America’s Human Space Exploration, issued on December 11, 2017, Trump restated President George W Bush’s call for the return of American astronauts to the moon for “long-term exploration and utilization” and hoped to send missions to Mars. However, skeptics may wonder if the administration is genuinely willing and able to sponsor the project financially. The 2019 Budget of the U.S. Government, which allocates $61 million to NASA than the 2017 fiscal year,  reflects a historical continuity of the overall amount of money post-Apollo Presidents assigned to NASA. in 2005, NASA estimated that it would cost $104 billion to send astronauts back to the moon; adjusted for inflation, it costs around $130 billion today to pursue Trump’s moon-returning agenda. However, given the assigned $19.9 billion, such goal is simply unattainable. Given the current political climate: with the reemergence of Russia and China as fledgling international superpowers and the North Korea missile crisis, Trump’s budget proposal for national defense was increased by $80 billion as compared to 2017.

Therefore, Trump continued his post- Lyndon predecessors’ practice to put NASA program in a secondary position to other priorities such as national defense. In the meantime, the specifics of the Budget reflects the administration’s intention to incorporate more commercial partnerships into its space program. For example, the Budget states that the government will terminate its sponsorship to the International Space Station by 2025 and assign $150 million to support commercial space developments. Especially considering the recent launch of Falcon Heavy, the most powerful rocket in the world, the Budget proposal will accelerate the US government’s hand-over of low-orbit space development to the private sector.

In conclusion, even though the Trump’s official directive regarding the space program in December 2019 outlined the administration’s intention to send astronauts back on the moon, given the limited budget assigned to NASA, a continuation of former presidents’ limited space-related sponsorship, such return is just infeasible. More importantly, the termination of US financial support for ISS and the government’s increasing partnership with the commercial space corporations signify a shift to greater reliance on the private sector for its future low-orbit space operations. It is thus likely that the commercial sector will take over the leadership in future space development programs that are not limited to the low-orbit dimension.

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