Nasa spacesuit closeup

White House ends some Nasa projects, moves focus to manned exploration

Image credit: Dreamstime

The White House’s budget for the 2019 fiscal year proposes defunding a number of Nasa projects, including the International Space Station (ISS), a space telescope, and its outreach department, while shifting attention to exploration of the Moon and Mars.

Overall, Nasa’s budget will be boosted by approximately $500m (£360m) over 2018, with a total of $19.9bn (£14.3bn) of federal funding.

The $3bn (£2.2bn) Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope project has been terminated. This would have given astronomers a field of view 100 times greater than that offered by the Hubble Space Telescope, allowing for the observation of exoplanets and the hunt for ‘dark energy’, which could comprise the majority of the universe despite never having been directly observed.

Nasa’s Office of Education will be completely terminated. This arm of the agency aims to inspire young people to work in science, engineering and technology.

The budget will also kill off five Nasa Earth studies into the climate: the Radiation Budget Instrument, the Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, ocean Ecosystem (PACE) project, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-3m, the Deep Space Climate Observatory, and the Climate Absolute Radiance and Refractivity Observatory pathfinder.

This shift away from environmental research is unsurprising, given the defunding of the Environmental Protection Agency – with a proposed 31 per cent cut to its budget and the dismissal of 25 per cent of its staff – by a President who has suggested that climate change is a Chinese hoax invented to undermine American industry.

As previously suggested, the White House will cut off federal funding for the International Space Station after 2024. An internal Nasa document has suggested that the White House is keen to hand the ISS – or at least the section owned by the US – over to private companies after its funding period ends.

The focus for funding is expected to shift towards more manned exploration, returning humans to the Moon and eventually to Mars. In April 2017, Trump urged Nasa to send humans to Mars during the course of his presidency. It is yet to be determined exactly how this will be achieved – even with an extended timeframe – although $890m (£640m) of the budget has been dedicated to ‘Advanced Exploration Systems’.

“We will begin to build the in-space infrastructure for long-term exploration development of our nearest neighbour by launching the power and propulsion element to orbit the Moon as the foundation of a Lunar Orbital Platform Gateway [formerly the Deep Space Gateway],” said Robert Lightfoot, acting Nasa administrator, during a press conference.

“This will give us a strategic presence in the lunar vicinity that will drive our activity with commercial and international partners and help us further explore the Moon and its resources, and translate that experience towards human missions to Mars.”

Nasa has plans to put an inhabited spacecraft in orbit around the Moon in the 2020s, he added, using Nasa’s Space Launch System – a massive rocket currently in development – along with commercial spacecraft, such as those built by Elon Musk’s SpaceX. Nasa will work towards a propulsion and power module for the ISS for launch in 2022, he said, which would assist the agency’s return to the Moon and exploration further into space.

By 2030, Nasa could have collected samples of Martian soil, and will be working to return them to Earth, while also prospecting the Moon for valuable minerals and with “people from all walks of life” working in extra-terrestrial environments, Lightfoot said.

The Nasa head also commented on the state of technology on Earth by 2030, saying that Nasa-developed supersonic aircraft would be a common sight, drones would be integrated into transportation systems, and “urban air mobility will be a common mode of transport; yes, you’ll have your Jetson [flying] car”.

Besides defunding Nasa programmes, Trump’s proposed budget includes funding for a border wall with Mexico, increased defence and border security spending, a $1.5tn (£1.1tn) infrastructure plan, while proposing deep cuts to housing and welfare programmes and foreign aid.

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