WASHINGTON — President Donald Trump made a fleeting reference to human spaceflight in a speech before a joint session of Congress Feb. 28, even as his administration develops a budget proposal that could slash funding for NASA.
“American footprints on distant worlds are not too big a dream,” Trump said near the end of the hour-long Joint Address, one of several achievements he said were possible by 2026, the 250th anniversary of the nation’s independence. The line was the only reference to space in the full speech, which devoted more attention to topics ranging from immigration to healthcare.
The space community was anticipating the possibility of a more detailed discussion of space in the speech. A report earlier in the day, citing an unnamed senior administration official, claimed that Trump would “call for the return of manned space exploration” in the speech.
The additional details may have been a victim of last-minute changes to the speech. Politico reported March 1, also citing an unnamed senior administration official, that a section on “NASA and space travel” was dropped from the speech in order to keep the speech from running over an hour.
The line that Trump did deliver about space in the speech was tweeted by NASA, but not with a problem. An initial version of the tweet included the statement “See what’s next for NASA:” with a link to a page on NASA’s website titled “What’s Next For NASA.” That page, though, is dated July 12, 2016, prior to the current administration. The agency deleted the tweet and reposted it without the link to the document.
The speech, formally known as a “Joint Address” rather than the “State of the Union” speech traditionally given annually by presidents after their first year in office, is not the first time Trump has made a passing reference to space. In his inaugural address Jan. 20, he said, “We stand at the birth of a new millennium, ready to unlock the mysteries of space.”
While the president makes brief references to space, his administration is crafting budgets that could result in significant overall cuts to NASA. In a White House briefing Feb. 27, Mick Mulvaney, director of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), said that overall discretionary non-defense spending in the administration’s 2018 budget proposal will be cut by $54 billion to $462 billion, or approximately 10 percent. That would offset a planned $54 billion increase in defense spending.
Mulvaney did not disclose details about how those cuts will be distributed among non-defense discretionary agencies, which include NASA. “It reduces money that we give to other nations, it reduces duplicative programs, and it eliminates programs that simply don’t work,” Mulvaney said at the briefing.
He said that the OMB’s budget figures were going out to agencies that day, a process known as “passback,” for their review and response. A “budget blueprint” document, outlining the planned 2018 budget proposal but with only limited details, is due to be released by March 16. The complete budget proposal will be issued by the first half of May, he said.
That potential for cuts in at least NASA’s overall budget contrasts with a recommendation of a report released Feb. 28 by the Aerospace Industries Association. It called for increasing NASA’s budget by at least three percent a year above the rate of inflation for a “sustained” period of time.
“This increase will restore NASA’s budget and purchasing power and better align NASA investments with a growing [gross domestic product] and discretionary spending,” the report stated. The increase, it said, would create stability for NASA programs and improve their efficiency.
NASA, like most of the federal government, is currently operating under a continuing resolution that funds the agency at fiscal year 2016 levels, when the agency received $19.3 billion. That continuing resolution runs through late April.