Trump’s budget plan for NASA focuses on studying space, not climate change

NASA missions to the surface of Europa, a nearby asteroid and the atmosphere above our own planet would be cut from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s portfolio under the White House budget proposal released Thursday.

But one of JPL’s signature programs, the Mars 2020 mission to send a sample-collecting rover to the Red Planet, survived. So did the lab’s Europa Clipper, a spacecraft set to fly by Jupiter’s icy moon that is believed to hide a liquid ocean and is considered a promising potential home for extraterrestrial life.

Overall, the 2018 budget blueprint put forth by President Trump would cut NASA funding from roughly $19.3 billion to $19.1 billion — largely sparing it the more brutal bloodlettings proposed for other science-oriented institutions such as the National Institutes of Health and the Environmental Protection Agency.

“This is in line with our funding in recent years, and will enable us to effectively execute our core mission for the nation, even during these times of fiscal constraint,” acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot said in a statement.

But the plan for NASA would still shift money around in ways that reflect Trump’s stated intentions to have the agency focus less on monitoring Earth’s vital functions and more on space exploration.

These shifts worried Rep. Adam B. Schiff (D-Burbank), whose district includes JPL in La Cañada Flintridge.

“It seems to be more of the continuing assault on climate science, and that’s deeply concerning,” Schiff said.

“In terms of the planetary missions that JPL works on, Mars 2020 looks good, the Europa Clipper looks good. But I am concerned about the cancellation of the Europa landing mission, and I intend to work with my colleague John Culberson to make sure that we restore that,” he said, referring to the Republican congressman from Texas.

If adopted, the budget would cancel the Asteroid Redirect Mission, a plan to capture a large asteroid and bring it close to Earth. That program, also run out of JPL, has earned its share of critics over the years. One scientist went so far as to call it a “one-off costly stunt” that distracted from the agency’s long-term goal of getting humans to Mars.

Still, much of the technology developed for the asteroid mission will be preserved and put to use in future projects, Lightfoot said.

“We will continue the solar electric propulsion efforts benefiting from those developments for [the] future in space transportation initiatives,” he said.

The White House blueprint would save $115 million by shutting down NASA’s Office of Education, arguing that it was “performing functions that are duplicative of other parts of the agency” — an assertion the budget’s critics strongly deny.

The budget targets NASA’s work on environmental science, cutting funding for Earth science research grants. It would eliminate several missions that are still in development, including JPL’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3, or OCO-3, an instrument to precisely monitor the carbon dioxide in our atmosphere; the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem mission, or PACE, which was was intended to monitor the planet’s ocean health; and the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory pathfinder, or CLARREO, which would have used a solar spectrometer to produce highly accurate climate projections.

The White House would also cut NASA’s role in the Deep Space Climate Observatory, or DSCOVR, a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite. That mission was originally proposed by former Vice President Al Gore, who has long warned of the dangers of climate change.

NOAA’s budget for Earth and ocean sciences would also suffer under Trump’s budget, which would eliminate more than $250 million in grants and programs that support coastal and marine management, research and education.

John Holdren, a Harvard University professor who served as director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and science advisor for President Obama, called the efforts to cut both education and environmental monitoring “just nuts.”

“I call this a ‘know-nothing’ trifecta: These are people who don’t know anything, they’re proud of not knowing anything, and they don’t want anybody else to know anything,” Holdren said. “This is not only putting their own head in the sand, but trying to force everybody else’s head into the sand.”

The blueprint allocates $3.7 billion for NASA to continue developing the Orion capsule and Space Launch System as part of the effort “to send American astronauts on deep-space missions.”

This appears to be in line with Trump’s call for more human exploration missions: “American footprints on distant worlds are not too big a dream,” he said last month while addressing a joint session of Congress.

The budget proposal does not mention any plans to send humans back to the moon, a direction in which some Trump advisors had shown interest. Nor does it contradict NASA’s goal, established under Obama, to get humans to Mars by the mid-2030s.

The proposal does highlight a push for more industry involvement in space exploration, including in the operation of the International Space Station and what it called “public-private partnerships for deep-space habitation and exploration systems.”

Other agencies whose missions involve research in science, health and technology are facing far more dramatic cuts under the Trump plan. The Environmental Protection Agency’s budget would decrease by $2.6 billion, a 31% cut, and the National Institutes of Health would lose nearly $6 billion, about 20% of its funding.

The Department of Energy would get more money to maintain its nuclear arsenal but take a significant hit to its clean-energy programs. ARPA-E, which funds and promotes cutting-edge energy research, would be eliminated entirely.

Significant cuts to other departments could also affect the space agency’s mission, said Charles Bolden, who served as NASA administrator under Obama.

NASA has built partnerships with many nations on a broad spectrum of efforts, including sharing environmental data to help developing countries manage food shortages and working with Russia on the International Space Station. The State Department, whose budget Trump has proposed to slash by about one-third, has played a supportive role in many of those efforts.

“I’m not at all surprised, but I’m very disappointed that the administration chose to go through with the threat,” Bolden said. “And it’s not just the environment — it’s their attack on education, it’s their attack on research and development, it’s their attack on everything that has allowed us to maintain our leadership in the world.”

The budget blueprint appears to have been written without an understanding of the myriad and unexpected ways that science benefits human lives, said Rush Holt Jr., a physicist and former congressman who now leads the American Assn. for the Advancement of Science.

“Either this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what science does and how important it is … or maybe a complete mistaken understanding of what science has brought to our society, to our economy, and to our culture,” he said.

Holt and others noted that Trump’s proposal is far from the last word on spending for the 2018 fiscal year. Budget negotiations are likely to play out in Congress over several months.

“To give you an illustration, we’re still working on the 2017 budget,” Schiff said. “So that tells you how long the process can be.”

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times

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