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NASA swerves serious cash cuts – but Earth climate probes, asteroid snatcher face axe

And SpaceX will be happy

By Iain Thomson, 16 Mar 2017

While some government departments are facing swinging cuts in President Trump's "America First" proposed budget, NASA appears to have escaped lightly – so far.

Funding was cut by $200m, and the total going to America's space agency is $19.1bn per year. Even so, NASA has had to cancel some popular programs. The mission to catch and bring an asteroid back to Earth for examination has been scrapped, as too are plans for a lander on Europa, although the Europa Clipper probe will still pay a visit to Jupiter's watery moon.

In a statement, NASA acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot said that while those two programs were being cut, the initial research carried out will still be used – notably the solar electric propulsion systems that were designed to bring an asteroid to Earth.

The planetary science budget has actually increased, so NASA can spend more on investigating other planets and moons. But the Earth science budget was cut 13 per cent, meaning the space agency will have to pull out of the climate-studying DSCOVR satellite system, and has cancelled other satellites due to study the Earth's ecosystem.

"Overall science funding is stable, although some missions in development will not go forward and others will see increases," Lightfoot said.

"We remain committed to studying our home planet and the universe, but are reshaping our focus within the resources available to us – a budget not far from where we have been in recent years, and which enables our wide-ranging science work on many fronts."

The budget plan also eliminates NASA's entire education department, which was tasked with increasing the public's understanding of space science. The budget notes that the department is considered to be duplicated by other NASA programs.

Funding remains steady for the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion capsule that NASA hopes will take mankind to Mars for the first time, with the agency getting $3.7bn to continue development. The budget statement also explicitly states that NASA should encourage public-private partnerships.

That's excellent news for Trump advisor and SpaceX boss Elon Musk in the very first line of the budget proposal for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration: "Supports and expands public-private partnerships as the foundation of future US civilian space efforts."

NASA contracts saved SpaceX from bankruptcy when it was starting out and the company is keen to get started on crew deliveries to the International Space Station as soon as the hardware has been certified.

"The budget creates new opportunities for collaboration with industry on space station operations, supports public-private partnerships for deep-space habitation and exploration systems, funds data buys from companies operating small satellite constellations, and supports work with industry to develop and commercialize new space technologies," it states.

The proposed "America First" budget will now be submitted to the US House of Representatives and the Senate for amendments, before being voted on and submitted to President Trump for his signing. ®

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