NASA’s 2016 Budget Is Looking Out of This World
There’s good news for NASA in 2016: Congress passed an omnibus spending bill that will provide nearly $19.3 billion in funding to the space agency. That’s an increase of about $1.3 billion from 2015, and it’s $756 million more than what the president requested for the agency.
That doesn’t mean that everything NASA wants to do will have funding. Plus, some of that money comes with directives from Congress. NASA is an enormous organization with different departments. Some of them are seeing an increase in funding while some will need to tighten the metaphorical belt as things get a bit lean.
First, let’s look at some of the areas that could see a real benefit from the proposed allocated funding. One of those is planetary science, which focuses on missions that explore our solar system. The budget sets aside more than $1.6 billion to fund projects such as the continued operation of the Mars rover Opportunity and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Congress also requests a new mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa that will include both an orbiter and a lander.
The Europa mission must also take advantage of the Space Launch System (SLS). To help make sure NASA can deliver upon that obligation, Congress proposes funding the project to the tune of $2 billion (the president had asked for $1.36 billion).
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And for the first time since 2011, NASA’s Commercial Crew program will be fully funded at $1.24 billion. This will help NASA work with partners like Boeing and SpaceX to develop new manned spacecraft. That also means the U.S. won’t have to rely on Russian spacecraft to get American astronauts to and from orbit.
Some areas ended up with smaller budgets in 2016 than in 2015. One of those is the Space Technology Mission Directorate, or STMD. Upon first glance, it looks like the STMD got a boost of its own. The 2016 budget would be $686 million, which is $90 million more than last year. But Congress also placed a demand on STMD to dedicate $133 million of that money to the RESTORE-L project, which will refuel a satellite in Earth orbit so that it can remain in operation beyond 2019 (when it would otherwise run out of fuel). The kicker is that the RESTORE-L program used to be under a different department, so STMD is seeing a net loss in funding.
Both the House and Senate passed the bill, and the president must still sign it into law. And the bill encompasses much more than just NASA. The whole thing is 2,009 pages long and includes just about everything outside of health care and Social Security. There are also some controversial riders — policy statements unrelated to the budget that would also become official once the bill is signed into law.
So while NASA can’t exactly spend money that isn’t officially in the agency’s possession yet, it might be time for the agency to start eyeing that pretty new spaceship that’s going on sale.