HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - Monday, President Donald Trump announced his budget proposal. His request funds NASA $21 billion, but cuts the NASA budget by $500 million. NASA Marshall Space Flight Center said no matter what happens as Congress takes up the budget process, their priorities, including the new Space Launch System rocket, will remain.
NASA's budget overall is a sizable one. The White House's budget document shows the president's proposal places an emphasis on expediting lunar exploration, increasing commercial partnerships, and funds the Space Launch System to reach its 2020 launch deadline.
Jim Bridenstine, NASA Administrator, praised the plan in a speech to NASA employees on Monday.
"SLS, Orion, Gateway, and in low earth orbit, the ISS, commercial crew, commercial resupply, and commercialization of low earth orbit for habitation are all strong in the president's budget request. We are thrilled as an agency that he is backing up not just with Space Policy Directive 1, but with his budgets. This is going to help us build that sustainable return to the moon."
Bridenstine said the President supports NASA, and a bipartisan group in Congress supports the agency and its financial needs too.
Jody Singer, Director of Marshall Space Flight Center, also praised the budget.
"In a time of tight federal budgets, the President's support for NASA is especially significant," she said. "Congress is committed to supporting NASA's exploration goals and has expressed this commitment through our agency's budget."
She hosted a press briefing in front of the test stand, where a test version of the SLS liquid hydrogen tank now stands.
"When you see the structural test article behind us, it doesn't get any better when you think about space exploration," she said. "It just shows you the participation that Marshall has in leading the largest NASA launch vehicle test campaign since the Space Shuttle era."
Singer said the budget will allow Marshall to continue doing what it does best.
"This proposal gives us the resources needed to deliver on our commitments. Most notably, $1.6 billion to focus on the SLS," she said.
The budget document shows focused funding for SLS to meet an early 2020 launch deadline for its first mission. This, the White House said, would keep costs and schedule challenges from diverting resources from other activities that promote exploration.
The cuts mean the rocket's upgrades (dubbed Block 1B) to make it capable of lifting more payload are postponed under this plan, instead going forward with the basic SLS. The funding of those is deferred.
Bridenstine highlighted the agency's desire for sustainability. He later added of the SLS, without addressing the cuts, "When it comes to SLS, and on this point, I want to be crystal clear, SLS is not reusable. But it is a critical piece of the architecture that allows us to deliver reusability to the moon."
The SLS would launch during Exploration Mission 1, then later a second manned mission, before eventually taking crews to the way station planned to orbit the moon after that.
Bridenstine added, "We are talking about a rocket bigger than any rocket that has ever been built in human history. With a payload faring capable of carrying volumes we have never seen before. Taller than the Statue of Liberty. This is a transformational strategic capability for the USA."
The idea is for a steady launch cadence of SLS and Orion.
Singer mentioned the focused budget but said the Marshall objective remains the same.
"Our SLS focus here at Marshall is the same, which is delivering the SLS for Exploration Mission 1 as quickly as we can to begin launching crews and cargo to the moon, establishing a flight cadence that begins our journey further, and with the Block 1 SLS configuration, we can establish many missions that get us started on this deep space journey," she stated.
Singer said that Marshall will continue to work to build the rocket "right."
WHNT News 19 asked how the budget the president proposed would affect the timeline for SLS's EM1 and 2. Singer indicated Marshall is doing what it can while anticipating any roadblocks.
"We have always been focused on [those,] because we know those are the critical missions we have to have," she said. "All the structural test articles are critical to making sure we understand the forces the vehicle will experience and having us go forward. Also as we know, with a complex vehicle you have manufacturing and schedule challenges which our team, I am proud to say, have worked through many. With this complex vehicle, we know we are going to have issues we are going to have to come forward on. So I will tell you I know our laser focus is on EM1 and EM2 and being able to deliver this vehicle in support of a launch readiness date of 2020. Our team is working hard and will continue to work hard to keep assessing because we want to deliver a vehicle that is ready for flight, safe for flight, and that will be a sustained capability for now and in the future."
Lunar and other efforts
The president's proposal allows plans for the Lunar Gateway, a way station and lunar orbital outpost planned to be built in the 2020s, to continue. The Gateway is a strategic move. The president wants to launch it not from the SLS, but on competitively procured vehicles. Crew transport flights would be from SLS and Orion.
Singer said Marshall will also support the development of the Lunar Gateway.
"Marshall will lead the habitat module work here, with the overall program being led out of Johnson. This builds on our experience of designing, building, and sustaining the ISS modules and components and station life support systems."
This will fuel other efforts to build a human presence on the moon and continue to explore it.
"For the first time in over 10 years, we have money in this budget for a return to the moon with humans. I'm talking about human-rated landers, compatible with Gateway that can go back and forth to the surface of the moon," Bridenstine said.
"New human and robotic lander systems will be developed as a public-private partnership, and Marshall's expertise will inform these innovative solutions," Singer said.
Singer added that Marshall, under this budget plan, would continue to invest in technology development and partnerships that can help us live and work in space on the Moon and Mars.
Marshall's science portfolio is also important. From being part of CubeSats and more, Singer said the center will continue to invest in science.
"Marshall is part of some of the most compelling and scientific productive missions of the century," she stated.
Singer said she sees Marshall's workforce continuing to grow.
"I see our future very bright, very steady, and a lot of work to keep going," she said. "I have a lot of faith in Marshall Space Flight Center employees and what we can do."