June 16, 2024
1 Solar System Way, Planet Earth, USA
Solar System

The elections and NASA's planetary program


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

The short answer is that no one knows.

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

The key thing will be how well the program is funded. Depending on how the political machinations play out, I can see situations where the planetary program could receive substantially less, about the same, or substantially more than it receives this year.

As SpacePolicyOnline describes it very wellThe 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 system of retirement and medical benefits (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 remained relatively stable with a slow decline and today represents about 0.5%.
If total federal spending decreases, spending on NASA will likely decrease as well.
Source: Wikipedia
For reasons too complex to discuss here (but see SpacePolicyOnline article), a group of Republicans last year wanted to institute major cuts to discretionary spending. If that happens, NASA's overall spending figure will compete for remaining funds with spending on many other discretionary items (e.g., FBI, National Parks, infrastructure spending). In this case, I think NASA's maximum number would probably be reduced significantly. I also think it would be unlikely that the planetary program would be spared the cuts.
However, if the final political consensus is to keep overall discretionary spending at levels similar to those of recent years (true political revolutions are rare), then other political factors will matter. The first is what level of priority the new Trump administration will give to NASA. So far all we have is opinion articles written by two people associated with the Trump campaign. The real policy of the Trump administration will emerge in the next few months to a year or so, when the new administration finally starts thinking about small federal agencies around which there is no major policy focus. I'm sure any political statement that emerges will praise NASA and proclaim lofty goals (NASA is politically like apple pie; almost everyone professes to love its mission and inspiration). However, the real policy is set by financing. 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 at the president's proposed annual budgets instead of the speeches.

Whatever NASA's top funding figure emerges, I suspect the planetary program will retain or potentially increase its share of that budget. Exploration of the solar system has had strong support from Congress, most notably from Congressman Culberson of Texas, chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies. Furthermore, based on the scientific priorities stated by both President-elect Trump and Republicans in Congress, NASA's program to study Earth is likely to suffer significant cuts and the planetary program will benefit. (For the record, I strongly oppose cuts to the Earth Sciences program.
Humans are dramatically changing our planet, whether looking at rising greenhouse gases, the nitrogen cycle, or transforming entire ecosystems, to name just a few.
Ignoring these changes is like pretending that your illness will go away if you don't get medical tests.)

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

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