“DOA” NASA Budget cuts Space Grant; Congress expected to restore STEM Engagement funds

Though the Interior budget highlighted Landsat 9, whose images will be processed in South Dakota, there were some inaccuracies in the White House’s NASA FY2020 budget summary.

Whether the NASA budget is up or down depends on whose figures you’re going with. Detailed figures from NASA say “$21.019 billion”, which is a $481 million or 2.2 percent decrease from the final 2019 budget of 21.500 billion. More confusing is the White House budget overview for NASA, which cites a budget of “$21 billion”, “$238 million or 1.4-percent increase from the 2019 estimate”, at least one of which is mathematically incorrect.

Though the details of NASA’s budget often matter more to other states, one issue that does affect the Upper Midwest is the proposal to eliminate funding from NASA’s Office of STEM Engagement, which provides NASA funds to the various states and territories through two main efforts: the Space Grant program, which provides NASA funds through grants of up to about $25,000 for Education, Scholarships, Internships, and Public Engagement, and the NASA EPSCoR program, which offers larger grants of up to $750,000 for scientific research, collaboration, and travel for work with NASA researchers.

Without the Office of STEM Engagement and its grant programs, NASA’s education efforts would amount to just a small amount of incidental efforts from other Mission Directorates – think special events for Mars landings or Pluto flybys.

No cause for concern

However, there is not yet cause for concern, as the cuts in the proposal have been called “dead on arrival” in Congress by journalists and House Democrats.

In early March, Space Grant leaders from across the country met in Washington, D.C. and also made time to visit their congressional delegations. The sense seems to be that the Office of STEM Engagement will not be closing, whatever the budget highlights might suggest.

Thomas V. Durkin, CGP, a Geologist and Deputy Director of the South Dakota Space Grant Consortium at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, is confident that NASA’s STEM Engagement programs will continue. “Congress likes Space Grant, because it provides funds for students in their states to excel,” and offered insight on the program’s role in developing a workforce for NASA and the aerospace industry. Internships accessed through Space Grant helped to put at least one South Dakotan behind a console at Mission Control for the International Space Station.

Durkin also spoke positively about the uniquely high level of interaction that a small congressional delegation provides, just one advantage that smaller states have when contacting policymakers.

The Next Steps for the Budget Process

It’s not just universities knocking on Congress’ door when it comes to space policy; just this month, there have also been other lobbying efforts by groups from the Planetary Society, to tech companies and Brazilian partners, all looking to get their visions into the cycle.

The ink will start to flow more formally, however, when the Congressional Budget Office completes its review of the President’s proposal, and the Congressional version of the budget is introduced in the House and Senate budget committees; the exact schedule has been irregular in recent years. NASA’s 2019 budget did not receive final approval until February 2019, following a high-profile government shutdown.

That budget provided a surprise bonus of $1.6078 billion over the original 2019 budget request. And just as it was with last year’s threat of budget cuts, Space Grant is very likely to remain a Congressional priority.