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The FY 2020 Budget Request: Space R&D

A look at NASA, DARPA, and Air Force space science and technology in the White House budget.

See also: FY 2020 Science Appropriations Dashboard | R&D in the President's Budget

National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Bottom Line: The total NASA budget would decrease by $481 million or 2.2 percent below FY 2019 enacted levels, with targeted cuts to earth science and a reprisal of calls to eliminate NASA’s next flagship astronomy mission and STEM education office. Investments would be directed to human exploration to return astronauts to the moon, followed by missions to Mars and other destinations. NASA is currently drafting an FY 2020 budget amendment that will detail additional funding to accelerate a lunar landing from the current target of 2028 to 2024, as directed by Vice President Mike Pence last month.

Science Mission Directorate

Table showing funding for NASA programs in the budget request.

Total Science Mission Directorate (SMD) funding would decrease by $602 million or 8.7 percent below FY 2019 enacted. Cuts would be levied across SMD’s four main accounts, encompassing Earth Science, Planetary Science, Astrophysics, and Heliophysics.

Earth Science. The agency’s principal earth science research account would see a slight 3 percent decrease below FY 2018 levels. The budget would eliminate funding for both the PACE and CLARREO Pathfinder missions, in a repeat from last year. However, two other Earth Science missions previously targeted for elimination – OCO-3 and DSCOVR – would be spared in this year’s request. The budget also continues support for Landsat 9, which has been fast-tracked for a December 2020 launch. Notably, the budget begins a new Incubation and Earth Venture Continuity program to enable low-cost sustained observations, as called for by the 2017 Earth Science Decadal Survey.  

Europa Clipper spacecraft. Image courtesy NASA.

Planetary Science. NASA’s main planetary science research account would decrease by 4.8 percent below FY 2018 levels. The budget supports the Europa Clipper for launch on a commercial vehicle in 2023, but not a follow-on lander ordered by House appropriators. Funding is continued for the Mars Rover 2020 mission towards a planned launch in July 2020. Meanwhile, funding ramps up for the Lucy and Psyche missions, as well as the New Frontiers program. The newly created Lunar Discovery and Exploration Program would receive funding to competitively select additional robotic payload missions to the surface of the Moon. Funding would roughly double for the Planetary Defense Program, which was established last year to support near-Earth object detection and mitigation.

Astrophysics. The Administration again proposes to eliminate funding for the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), a top-priority mission in the latest astrophysics decadal survey. Funds made available by the proposed termination of WFIRST would be directed to Astrophysics Explorers missions as well as core astrophysics research. The Administration cites cost as a factor for cancelling WFIRST and the need to complete the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). The launch date for JWST was recently delayed to March 2021, amid the significant cost overruns that have plagued the mission.

Heliophysics. The primary heliophysics research line would increase by 14.9 percent above FY 2018 levels. Notably, the request initiates funding for the Interstellar Mapping and Acceleration Probe (IMAP), which would investigate the boundary of the heliosphere after its launch in 2024. The budget provides the final year of funding for the Ionospheric Connection Explorer (ICON), which will investigate changes in the Earth’s ionosphere, and continues support for the Solar Orbiter Collaboration, a joint NASA/European Space Agency mission scheduled to launch in 2020.

Exploration Campaign

Graph showing NASA funding changes in the FY 2020 budget.

The budget proposes an Exploration Campaign totaling $10.7 billion in FY 2020, with investments focused on human exploration and lunar related activities. The budget structure for NASA’s Exploration Campaign is composed primarily of three accounts below.

Deep Space Exploration Systems. The budget provides continued support for the first un-crewed test flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion in mid-2020, though delays are anticipated, according to NASA. Because of the delay and cost overruns, NASA is planning to defer work on a more powerful Exploration Upper Stage as well as a second mobile launch platform for the SLS.

Meanwhile, funding for the new Lunar Orbital Platform-Gateway (LOP-G) would grow from $450 million in FY 2019 to $821 million in FY 2020. The Advanced Cislunar and Surface Capabilities account, which funds robotic lunar missions to the surface of the moon, would more than triple from last year’s appropriation to $363 million total. The budget would also establish a new Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative to spur creation of novel technologies for exploration. However, the agency’s Human Research Program is slated for a 3.4 percent cut below FY 2019 enacted.

LEO and Spaceflight Operations. NASA’s new Commercial Low Earth Orbit (LEO) development account would grow from the FY 2019 enacted level of $40 million to $150 million in FY 2020. Funding for the International Space Station (ISS) is slightly below FY 2018 levels. While the Administration backs off on last year’s proposal to end federal funding for the ISS by 2025, the budget directs NASA to find efficiencies and deliver significant savings in ISS operating costs by FY 2023 and FY 2024. Meanwhile, the Commercial Crew and Cargo Program would receive funding towards the goal of increasing the U.S. crew size of the ISS from three astronauts to four astronauts, which will enable more research to be carried out on board the ISS.

Restore-L satellite servicing mission. Image courtesy NASA.

Exploration Technology. Notably, the budget establishes a new Lunar Surface Innovation Initiative that aims to spur creation of novel technologies needed for exploration on the moon, implemented through a combination of in-house activities, competitive programs, and public-private partnerships. Within the Technology Demonstration account, funding is prioritized for solar electric propulsion and small spacecraft technology. However, the budget echoes previous attempts to restructure and descope the Restore-L satellite servicing mission. NASA’s Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer (SBIR/STTR) programs would see steady funding.

Other Programs

Aeronautics. The budget provides sustained funding for the Low Boom Flight Demonstrator (LBFD) as it enters development phase; the LBFD project will demonstrate quiet overland supersonic flight utilizing an experimental X-plane. NASA Aeronautics also plans to start a new Advanced Air Mobility Project that will accelerate research supporting urban air mobility (UAM). The Transformative Aero Concepts Program, which includes support for technical research studies conducted at universities, would see a modest increase over FY 2018 levels.

Education. The budget again seeks to eliminate funding for NASA’s education office, recently renamed as the Office of STEM Engagement, which is responsible for the Space Grant consortia, EPSCoR, and other activities. The proposed elimination would not affect other education activities, including internships and fellowships funded by the Science Mission Directorate.

Defense Department Science and Technology

Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). The primary program element through which DARPA funds space activities would receive a collective $52.5 million or 20.6 percent reduction to $202.6 million (for context, DOD’s total space budget for FY 2020 is $14.1 billion). This is primarily due to funding wind-downs for the Experimental Spaceplane and Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites programs and completion of the Radar Net program funding in FY 2019. On the other hand, DARPA’s small satellite network, Blackjack, would see a funding increase to $25 million, an $8.6 million increase from FY 2019 (though Blackjack also received Air Force support in FY 2019 as well). DARPA will also initiate a project to develop a high-assay low-enriched uranium (HALEU) nuclear propulsion system, dubbed the Reactor On A Rocket (ROAR) program. With initial FY 2020 funding set at $10 million, the program ultimately seeks assembly of a demonstration system in orbit.

Artist's concept of DARPA space plane.
DARPA's Experimental Spaceplane. Image courtesy DARPA.

The largest increase is slated for the DARPA Launch Challenge, which would jump from $5 million in FY 2019 to $38.5 million. The competition seeks demonstration of rapid fabrication and launch of small spacecraft by commercial companies, with the first launches planned in FY 2020. DARPA recently selected Vector Launch, VOX Space, and a third anonymous firm as finalists.

DARPA would also nearly double funding, to $27.4 million, for predictive multi-scale models of near-Earth space weather.

Table showing funding for DOD space R&D programs in the budget request.


Air Force Science & Technology. Unclassified space research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) funded by the Air Force would amount to $6.3 billion in FY 2020, a 29.6 percent increase from FY 2019 levels. The vast majority of this is nearer-term development[1] of big-ticket systems; on the other hand, space-focused research and early-stage technology[2] funding would decline. An estimate of these accounts is $321 million total in FY 2020, versus $359 million in FY 2019, when Congress added additional funding for Hall thrusters, modular energy systems for satellites, laser communications, and other topics of legislator interest.

In spite of this overall decline, several programs would see stable funding, with some increases mixed in. This includes moderate increases for line elements relevant to space situational awareness (including a $1.2 increase for the Maui Space Surveillance System), a $6.2 million increase for space environment sensor research, a $2.5 million increase for small satellite demonstrations, and a $7.2 million increase for atomic clock R&D for navigation and positioning purposes.

Further down the development stream, the request seeks plus-ups for GPS technology upgrades and GPS III, space- and ground-based weather monitoring systems to address weather gaps, situational awareness systems, satellite systems for polar communications and missile warnings, and requests $432 million for next-generation launch systems associated with the National Security Space Launch program.

Space Development Agency. The Pentagon requests $149.8 million total for the first year of the newly-established Space Development Agency, tasked with developing next-generation space technology. $105 million of the new agency’s budget is slated for R&D, including $20 million to develop low Earth orbit sensor technology, and other funding for communications, data transport, ground-based missile warning, and other topics. These activities will leverage DARPA’s Blackjack project mentioned above. The Space Development Agency will eventually be merged into the new Space Force if established by Congress. The FY 2020 budget calls for $72.4 million for Space Force, plus $83.8 million for the U.S. Space Command.


[1] Budget accounts 6.4, 6.5, 6.6, and 6.7 in the DOD nomenclature.

[2] Budget accounts 6.1, 6.2, and 6.3 in the DOD nomenclature.


David Parkes

Program Associate

Matt Hourihan