3 April 2020

President's FY 2021 Budget Request

Kelsie Krafton

Kelsie Krafton Space Studies Board of the NAS

President's FY 2021 Budget Request On 10 February the Trump administration released the annual President's Budget Request (PBR), marking the official start of the fiscal year (FY) 2021 appropriations process. In the days that followed, the agencies released their congressional budget justifications. These documents that are sent to Congress as part of the administration's budget proposal. The PBR is generally due to Congress on or before the first Monday in February each year, which would have been 3 February 2020, but it is recently fairly normal for PBRs to be delayed.

For the fourth year in a row, the Trump administration is proposing cuts across non-defense spending, and science agencies are not spared (though some agencies are slated for harder cuts than others). The request cuts non-defense discretionary spending overall by 5% from the FY 2020 level to satisfy the caps on discretionary spending set by the Budget Control Act (BCA) of 2011. Of course, since the BCA was signed into law, Congress has acted to overrule it with successive budget agreements that raise the caps; the last budget agreement was in August 2019, and lasts until August 2021.

It's useful to talk about the numbers in the PBR as they compare to the previous year's enacted budget. The budget for FY 2020 was enacted in December 2019, and contains many of the funding levels. However, specific line items' final funding is not known until the agencies publish their operating (spending) plans. NASA's FY 2019 spending plan has been published. The National Science Foundation's (NSF's) FY 2019 spending is embedded in their FY 2021 budget request. The Department of Energy's (DOE's) Office of Science spending is also embedded in the current year's budget request, but includes FY 2020's spending as well. The National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)  presents the same level of information as the DOE's Office of Science. So we cannot compare every budget line to its FY 2020 spending level, sometimes we must use FY 2019 numbers.


FY 2021 Summary Budget Brief
FY 2021 Congressional Justification

NASA receives a nearly 12% increase to the agency top line from FY 2020 (and compared to a 5% overall non-defense spending cut), but the Science Mission Directorate (SMD) would see a nearly 12% cut. NASA's budget rollout materials focus on the agency's vision for American astronauts on the surface of the Moon by 2024. The bulk of the cuts to SMD come from the cancellation of the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) and the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA). The table below holds the numbers for the agency lines most relevant to the astronomical sciences and is followed by some highlights of the major initiatives, reorganizations, and changes in this budget proposal.


FY 2019 FY 2020 FY 2021 Request Request Delta ($) Request Delta (%)
NASA $21,500.0 $22,629.0 $25,246.0 +$2,617.0 +11.6%
Science Mission Directorate $6,895.6 $7,139.0 $6,306.5 -$832.5 -11.7%
Planetary Science $2,748.4 $2,713.0 $2,659.6 -$53.4 -2.0%
Research $236.4   $305.4 +$69.0 +29.2%
Planetary Defense $150.0   $150.0 +$0.0 +0.0%
Lunar Discovery and Exploration $188.0   $451.5 +$263.5 +140.2%
Discovery $409.5   $484.3 +$74.8 +18.3%
New Frontiers $120.4   $179.0 +$58.6 +48.7%
Mars Exploration $690.0   $528.5 -$161.5 -23.4%
Outer Planets and Ocean Worlds $755.6   $414.4 -$341.2 -45.2%
Nuclear Power $198.5   $146.3 -$52.2 -26.3%
Astrophysics w/o JWST $1,191.6 $1,306.0 $831.0 -$475.0 -36.4%
Research $222.8   $269.7 +$46.9 +21.1%
Cosmic Origins (w/o JWST) $222.8   $124.0 -$98.8 -44.3%
Physics of the Cosmos $151.2   $143.9 -$7.3 -4.8%
Exoplanet Exploration $367.9   $47.2 -$320.7 -87.2%
Astrophysics Explorer $227.0   $246.2 +$19.2 +8.5%
JWST $304.6 $423.0 $414.7 -$8.3 -2.0%
Heliophysics $720 $725.0 $633.1 -$91.9 -12.7%
Research $248.9   $230.5 -$18.4 -7.4%
Living with a Star $177.8   $127.9 -$49.9 -28.1%
Solar Terrestrial Probes $145.3   $126.3 -$19.0 -13.1%
Heliophysics Explorer $147.9   $148.4 +$0.5 +0.3%
Office of STEM Engagement $110.0 $120.0 $0.0 -$120.0 -100.0%

* All values are in millions of dollars. 


The FY 2021 proposal would cut the Astrophysics Division top line by 36%, or 28% when including the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Such cuts stem from significant impacts across the portfolio; the budget proposal:

  • Once again cancels WFIRST, stating that, "the Administration is not ready to proceed with another multi-billion-dollar space telescope until Webb has been successfully launched and deployed." Due to Congressional support, WFIRST passed Key Decision Point - C, which formally initiates the implementation phase of the mission.
  • Effectively cancels the SOFIA airborne observatory, "given its high operating costs and low scientific productivity."
  • Augments the Astrophysics Explorers Program to support the recommended cadence of new Astrophysics Explorers missions, with another AO in 2021. The proposal also establishes a new class of small Explorers, the Pioneer class.
  • Increases funding for Astrophysics Research in several targeted areas, like investigating the science opportunities of CubeSats/SmallSats. 
  • Supports launch of JWST in March 2021.

Planetary Science

  • The administration directs NASA to impose a cost cap of $500 million for future Discovery AOs. This cap is in FY 2019 constant dollars and is the total for phases A through D, and does not include the cost of the launch vehicle or the value of any non-NASA contributions. This cost cap is equivalent to the $450 million FY 2015 in the previous AO, which led to the selection of the Lucy and Psyche missions. The out-year budget supports an approximate 30-month cadence for future launches.
  • The administration proposes an increase to the Lunar Discovery and Exploration program, referencing the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, VIPER lunar rover, and payloads for delivery to the lunar surface and orbit.
  • This budget supports two flagship missions, the Mars 2020 rover mission and the Europa Clipper project, but provides no funding for a follow-on mission to land on Europa. 
  • The budget includes $233 million in FY 2021 for studies and technology development (along with international partners) towards a Mars sample return mission, launching as early as 2026. 


  • Despite cuts to the Living with a Star program, the administration funds the Geospace Dynamics Constellation (GDC) mission in anticipation of launch as early as 2026. 
  • The budget proposes a restructuring of the Solar Terrestrial Probes (STP) program as a moderate-scale, PI-led flight program, implementing three mid-scale missions with an eventual four-year cadence.
  • The budget supports the 2024 launch of the Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP) mission in 2024. 
  • The administration requests acceleration and expansion of the Heliophysics Explorers program to achieve an increase to the cadence of competed missions to one launch every two to three years. The proposed out-year budgets, if realized, would enable launch of the 2019 selections Atmospheric Waves Experiment (AWE), Polarimeter to Unify the Corona and Heliosphere (PUNCH), and Tandem Reconnection and Cusp Electrodynamics Reconnaissance Satellites (TRACERS) by August 2022. The budget also supports the launch by 2025 of one mission that will be selected through the 2019 MIDEX solicitation. 
  • The proposal directs Heliophysics division to implement the DRIVE (Diversify, Realize, Integrate, Venture, Educate) initiative, including the incorporation of smaller spacecraft, with an increase in the competed research program from 10% to about 15% of the budget request. 


FY 2021 Congressional Justification
FY 2021 MPS Budget

Overall, NSF was cut around 6.5% (more than the 5% overall non-defense spending cut). This trickled down to a nearly 8% cut in NSF's Research & Related Activities. The Division of Astronomical Sciences (AST) was cut by over 15%. The PBR funds investments in the Administration’s R&D priority area of Industries of the Future: AI, Quantum Information Science, Advanced Manufacturing, Advanced Wireless Research, and Biotechnology. The table below holds the numbers for the agency lines most relevant to the astronomical sciences and is followed by some highlights of the major initiatives, reorganizations, and changes in this budget proposal.


FY 2019 FY 2020 FY 2021 Request Request Delta ($) Request Delta (%)
National Science Foundation $8,338.3 $8,578.4 $7,947.7 -$630.7 -7.4%
Research & Related Activities (R&RA) $6,578.1 $6,737.2 $6,213.0 -$524.2 -7.8%
Mathematical and Physical Sciences Directorate (MPS) $1,490.6   $1,448.3 -$42.3 -2.8%
Astronomical Sciences Division (AST) $287.0   $242.1 -$44.9 -15.6%
Mid-scale Infrastructure $15.6   $1.0 -$14.6 -93.6%
Mid-Scale Research Infrastructure $60.04   $97.67 +$37.63 +62.7%
Major Research Equipment & Facility Construction (MREFC) $285.3 $243.2 $229.75 -$13.45 -5.5%
Vera C. Rubin Observatory $53.5 $46.3 $40.75 -$5.55 -12%

* All values are in millions of dollars. Unfortunately, NSF does not publish enacted current year (FY20) funding levels for most programs despite a Congressionally-approved operating plan, so we’re left to compare to FY19 in many cases. 

Existing Facilities

NSF’s AST is the steward of ground-based astronomy, and the Division of Atmospheric and Geospace Science supports studies of our Sun and its interaction with Earth. Recent independent reviews of both divisions acknowledged the importance of the science made possible by existing facilities such as the Arecibo Observatory and the Green Bank Observatory. Given the budget constraints, the Budget Request proposes to continue reducing AST funding for these facilities.  


One of the top priorities of the last decadal survey was the creation of a mid-scale innovations program (MSIP) within AST at $40 million per year. The Budget Request proposes a near cancellation of the AST program by reducing funding by $14.6 million (-94% compared to FY19) to $1 million. On the other hand, funding for the NSF-wide mid-scale research instrumentation program (MSRI-1/2) would grow by $38 million (+63% compared to FY19) to $98 million.

DOE Office of Science and NIST

DOE Office of Science FY 2021 Congressional Justification
NIST FY 2021 Congressional Justification

Overall, the DOE Office of Science was cut around 17% (much greater than the 5% overall non-defense spending cut). This includes a 22% cut in the High Energy Physics program, which contains the Cosmic Frontier program. Most funding for the astronomical sciences comes from Cosmic Frontier, which was slashed by 26% in the Request.  

Overall, NIST has a top-line cut of 29% (again, much greater than the 5% overall non-defense spending cut). The Request cuts NIST’s Scientific and Technical Research and Services by 13.5%, with nearly 400 staff positions lost. The proposed cut to Fundamental Measurement, Quantum Science, and Measurement Dissemination of 9% would cost 73 positions at NIST. The proposed cuts would reduce spending in metrology and measurement, including calibration services crucial to laboratory measurements. As the NIST Budget Request itself notes, these cuts mean that “... even with other providers available the level of uncertainty in measurement comparability across the world will increase.”  

The tables below hold the numbers for each agency with the lines most relevant to the astronomical sciences and is followed by some highlights of the major initiatives, reorganizations, and changes in this budget proposal.


FY 2019 FY 2020 FY 2021 Request Request Delta ($) Request Delta (%)
DOE Office of Science $6,858.0 $7,000.0 $5,837.8 -$1,162.2 -16.6%
High Energy Physics $980.0 $1,045.0 $818.1 -$226.9 -21.7%
Cosmic Frontier $101.0 $94.9 $69.9 -$25.0 -26.3%



FY 2019 FY 2020 FY 2021 Request Request Delta ($) Request Delta (%)
NIST $985.5 $1,034.0 $737.5 -$296.5 -28.7%
Scientific and Technical Research and Services $724.5 $754.0 $652.0 -$102.0 -13.5%
Fundamental Measurement, Quantum Science, and Measurement Dissemination $170.0 $191.5 $173.7 -$17.8 -9.3%

* All values are in millions of dollars. 

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