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Spatial Awareness

News & Features | March 5, 2018

This October, with the beginning of the 2019 fiscal year, NASA may face changes to its funding. The current budget proposal would allocate $19.9 billion toward NASA, an increase of $370 million from 2018. Although this increase would prioritize manned missions to the moon, the budget also includes plans to completely defund the International Space Station by 2025, to cut a space telescope mission, to cut Earth-observing satellites, and to eliminate NASA’s Office of Education.

Reflected in the budget changes is the vision of Space Policy Directive One. According to a White House memorandum, the main goal of Space Policy Directive One is “the return of humans to the Moon for long-term exploration and utilization, followed by human missions to Mars and other destinations.” The Space Policy Directive One aims to bring back manned missions to the moon before the exploration of deep space, including Mars. In addition, this policy is clear in its language about prioritizing the use of commercial partners in the funding of space exploration.

This policy marks a departure from the Obama administration’s goals for space exploration, which cut back from cislunar missions—missions between the Earth and the moon—and believed in “Mars-first,” which called for astronauts to arrive on Mars by the 2030s. However, the aim for manned missions to the moon is not a new push. Trump, following the tradition of past Republican administrations such as the Bush administration, is concentrating on cislunar space, with a focus towards the inclusion of privatization, especially low-Earth orbit missions.

The determination to move forward with manned exploration of the moon and beyond seems like a valiant goal. However, to fund these missions, several other existing programs must be cut. These program changes inhibit the previous progress made by NASA. As Tufts Physics and Astronomy Professor Ken Olum says, “These programs require decades of sustained effort to come up with this kind of mission, so it doesn’t do much good for people who don’t know what they’re talking about to come in and say, ‘Well stop doing this, do this instead.’”

While Space Policy Directive One reflects the current administration’s priorities toward broader space exploration, there are further cuts to the budget that directly impact the study of Earth’s climate. Five Earth science missions that would be eliminated include the Orbiting Carbon Observatory Three; the Deep Space Climate Observatory; the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, Ocean Ecosystem; the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory Pathfinder; and the Radiation Budget Instrument. These Earth science related missions had a range of tasks, including observing carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, measuring climate systems’ responses to certain variables, and calculating emitted thermal radiation. Through these missions, researchers could gain insight into long-and-short-term climate trends.

Tufts Associate Professor of Astronomy Danilo Marchesini connects the elimination of these programs to the Trump administration’s resistance towards climate change. For him, these missions are necessary to be able “to understand the delicate way that you interact with the atmosphere which probably is one of the most important players in how our climate works,” adding that, “given the current global warming, we need to know what are the drivers that control our climate.” He cautions that cutting the programs without adequate research and consensus from those in the field will be “risking to cause more damage, [rather] than trying to fix what the problem is.” Marchesini finds the cutting of the programs “unacceptable,” a decision that makes him, “question the amount of rational thinking skills of those who are proposing the cuts.”

One of the proposals that is receiving the biggest outcries fro`m experts in the field is the cancellation of the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) mission, a next-generation telescope that could observe deep space in infrared and carries a coronagraph which is an instrument that blocks out the sun to access clearer images of nearby objects.

Marchesini highlights three main reasons for the importance of WFIRST. First, it would allow for the study of poorly understood dark energy, which is “70 percent of the content of the universe today.” He also adds that WFIRST, “would advance our understanding of exoplanets and represent the first step toward the discovery of a habitable Earth-like planet orbiting a nearby star.”  Lastly, he comments that it was, “representing an extraordinary facility for astrophysics survey”.

By eliminating WFIRST, the Trump administration has disregarded one of the most significant priorities for astronomers. In a 2010 National Research Council survey of science priorities for the next decade, US astronomers ranked WFIRST as their top space related mission. Harvard Astronomy Professor Xingang Chen comments, “The project WFIRST is the top priority of the authoritative US decadal survey… For [the] Trump administration to make such decisions, panel studies of the same quality and scope should be done. Otherwise, such decisions would be immature and childish.”

The money instead would go towards missions to the moon. Specifically, it would support NASA’s Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft development with missions that would send astronauts back to the moon by 2023, and the construction of the Lunar Orbital Platform Gateway, where astronauts could work in accessible proximity to the moon’s surface.

Another aspect to the budget is the government defunding of the International Space Station. The White House aims to implement plans to turn the ISS over to the private sector and has already requested $150 million for a transition plan so that companies “could continue to operate certain elements or capabilities of the ISS as part of a future commercial platform.” According to an Eos article, the US government currently spends around half of its spaceflight budget, $3 to $4 billion, on the ISS. If approved, according to Professor Marchesini, the ISS budget from the US government would be zero by 2025. He has reservations about the defunding, saying that, “by potentially determining the end of the ISS, because of significant removal of supporting funding, the proposed NASA budget would push humankind closer to Earth […] rather than projecting outward. This decision seems contradicting the overall new change in the NASA mission of space exploration by going back to the Moon, going to Mars, and beyond.”

The current budget proposal also includes cutting NASA’s education program, which would save $100 million. The Trump administration attempted to do this last year but failed without the support of Congress. According to NASA’s website, there are three key values for the education program: to strengthen the future of the workforce, to attract students to STEM related disciplines, and to keep the public engaged and informed about NASA’s endeavors. Goals for the program include “increasing participation by underrepresented and underserved communities, expanding e-Education, and expanding NASA’s participation with the informal education community.”

Marchesini finds NASA’s Office of Education invaluable, with its purpose “to enable […] younger generations to dream big and if the young generation are dreaming big, then really everything is possible.” He emphasizes that hurting the education of future generations is “actually the single most damaging act that any administration can do.”

The proposed budget remains just that—proposed. Currently, there is much bipartisan debate and disagreement around the bill, making its final form unclear. The House and Senate still have to come to a consensus on the specific numbers and make their own amendments to the budget affecting NASA. There is a long road ahead for the budget before the final version is confirmed by 2019. Olum remains hopeful, speculating that “what Congress passes, if anything, could be very different.”

In the end, the problem of the proposed budget changes is not the push for space exploration. Rather, it is the programs sacrificed that will cause the most damage to our space endeavors, if passed as is. Marchesini highlights the necessity of these programs. “These are priceless programs that were ongoing at NASA that now are being cut. And I say priceless because they have enabled transformative discoveries that have shaped how humankind places itself within our own solar system, our own Milky Way, and the Universe in general, and they have enabled the sharing of these amazing discoveries with everybody.”