Highlights of NASA’s FY2016 budget request

First, a quick reminder that this is what NASA is *requesting*, via the White House.  There is no guarantee Congress will give it.  Most of the time, Congress reduces it, and quite often they also tie strings to bits of it.  But it tends to fall fairly close to this, and it’s a very good window into NASA’s priorities for the upcoming year.

* $3.106 billion for ISS operations

The ISS is officially funded through 2020, with member nations (yes, including Russia, despite some rumblings to the contrary) pushing for an extension to at least 2026, so this part was no surprise.

* $1.244 for Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap)

This is far more than it’s received so far in any given year, but 2016 is the year that would make or break the program, since it absolutely must be ready to provide regular service by the time the Soyuz contract runs out in 2017.  2016 should see very heavy work on CCtCap, both at Boeing (CST-100) and SpaceX (Dragon V2).  One big caveat here: this particular contract has been consistently cut back by Congress from what was in the Presidential budget request, so we’ll have to wait and see how close the reality is to this request.  One thing that may help is that NASA is actually contractually obliged to spend this much on CCtCap if both Boeing and SpaceX meet all of their targets.  The fees are dependent on performance, so if one or both fall behind schedule, NASA would not need the full amount; that might yet inspire Congress to cut, assuming that NASA could just pillage some other program for the funds if they need to.  I very much hope that is not the road Congress takes.

* $2.863 billion for Orion and SLS

Call it “Son of Constellation”; this funding (vastly lower, adjusted for inflation, than what Apollo and Saturn were getting in the 60s) would progress the program forward towards whatever goal it ends up getting.  The Asteroid Redirect Mission is part of this, though I’m not sure if it’s actually part of this chunk of money or just aligned with Orion’s long-term goals.  Again, as with CCtCap, this has been a popular place for Congress to trim, so we will have to see what they end up with.

*  $1.361 billion for planetary science

It was NASA’s planetary science program that first got me interested in space — the Voyager mission.  That mission is still funded.  But the most exciting bits of this are that a Europa probe is officially back on the table.  NASA had to back out of JUICE (the European mission that will visit Europa and the other icy moons of Jupiter) due to budgetary constraints, but now there is funding to study another Jupiter mission, to launch as soon as 2020.  The planetary budget will also include funding for a follow-on to Curiosity, also planned to launch in 2020.  This budget also includes $620 million for the James Webb Space Telescope, set to launch just two years later, and $710 million for astrophysics, which includes operation of NASA’s existing fleet of space observatories.

* Zero dollars for MER-B “Opportunity” and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter

These two venerable spacecraft, both of which completed their primary missions long ago, are showing serious signs of aging, and NASA has allocated zero funds for them in FY 2016.  That said, NASA didn’t allocate any funds for Opportunity in 2014 either, but found enough to approve a two-year mission extension anyway.  So don’t assume this means both spacecraft will be abandoned.  It does mean that NASA’s attention is moving away from them, however, mostly in recognition of their advanced age and likelihood of failure in the near future.  Opportunity in particular; in this final year of the mission extension, engineers are working on a software update to squeeze some more life out of its aging NVRAM, which is beginning to wear out.  When NVRAM wears out, it stops storing data, which has been leading to computer resets on Opportunity.  At present, NASA isn’t using NVRAM at all on the spacecraft, which is not a very viable workaround since it completely precludes storing data overnight.

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