NASA Prioritizes Moon Landings Under Trump Budget Proposal

NASA Prioritizes Moon Landings Under Trump Budget Proposal

In a shifting of priorities at NASA, the Trump administration’s proposed budget for next year adds $600 million for an outpost high above the moon and the beginning of development for landers to take astronauts back to the lunar surface.

But in keeping with the administration’s preference for the private sector, the proposal emphasizes a more commercial approach for moon exploration as it seeks budgetary reductions in other areas. It postpones a major upgrade for the giant rocket NASA is developing, and NASA’s science missions could face a 10 percent reduction, including another attempt to cancel an upcoming flagship telescope. Congress has restored such cuts in earlier years.

While many other domestic programs face sizable cuts in the Trump administration’s budget, NASA overall fares well by comparison. The budget seeks a little more than $21 billion for fiscal year 2020, which starts Oct. 1. That is $1 billion more than the administration proposed for this fiscal year, but $500 million less than the $21.5 billion that Congress ultimately decided.

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In an address at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Jim Bridenstine, the space agency’s administrator, repeatedly described the budget as “strong” and said, “We have strong bipartisan support in both chambers of Congress.”

President Obama had wanted NASA to focus on sending astronauts to Mars, but the Trump administration has pivoted to the moon as a closer, more immediate destination.

The first element of its plan is what NASA calls the Gateway, an outpost orbiting the moon. Spacecraft would ferry astronauts between the Gateway and the lunar surface. By 2028, the Trump administration says that astronauts could return, nearly 60 years after NASA’s first moon landings.

The Gateway is to be a collaboration between various space agencies, much like the International Space Station. Canada was the first to agree to take part, announcing last month that it would provide robotics to the lunar outpost.

Instead of major government-run programs like Apollo in the 1960s or even Constellation, the return-to-the-moon program under President George W. Bush, the latest approach largely bankrolls a competition among private companies.

The budget proposal includes $363 million for development of landers for cargo and eventually astronauts, and NASA recently asked for industry input on such landers. The budget proposal did not lay out details of how the competition would be run.

To free up money for the landers, the budget postpones an upgrade of the second stage of the Space Launch System, the heavy lift rocket NASA has been developing for deep space missions, but the greater capability is not needed for the spacecraft’s early missions. The budget would also shift the launching of a robotic mission to one of Jupiter’s moons, the Europa Clipper, from the Space Launch System, to a cheaper commercial rocket.

The proposal would start financing a new mission to Mars sometime in the late 2020s or early 2030s that would bring Martian rocks back to Earth for closer study.

Just like last year, the administration again seeks to cancel Wfirst, or Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, a big astronomy mission that is to come after the much-delayed James Webb Space Telescope. Congress, however, decided to continue financing for Wfirst.

The administration has also eased up on trying to cut NASA’s earth sciences missions, which produce data used by scientists who study climate change. The proposed budget again tries to eliminate two missions under development but sustains two others it had tried to the cancel previously.

Mr. Bridenstine noted that the earth science budgets during the first two years of the Trump administration were well funded. (That is because Congress did not go along with the administration’s proposed cuts.) He also spoke of the changing climate and its effects on the planet without any hedging skepticism voiced by other administration officials.

“Carbon dioxide is in the atmosphere in levels we’ve never seen before,” Mr. Bridenstine said. “We are responsible for that. It is a greenhouse gas. NASA has an obligation to continue studying these activities.”

The budget proposal makes only passing mention of the piece of last year’s budget proposal that yielded the most controversy — the phasing out of the International Space Station by the end of 2024.

Instead, the document states, “By 2025, the budget envisions commercial capabilities on the International Space Station as well as new commercial facilities and platforms to continue the American presence in Earth orbit.”

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