The past helps predict the future of NASA’s 2017 budget request

Investors are familiar with the disclaimer “Past performance does not necessarily predict future results.” In the case of NASA’s budget, though, past performance is a good predictor of what might happen with the agency’s 2017 proposal.

Nor surprisingly, the 2017 request, the last offered by the Obama administration, contains few major new programs or other major changes. The biggest initiative in the $19 billion budget is in aeronautics, where NASA asks for an increase of nearly 25 percent to start a 10-year effort to develop experimental aircraft to flight-test new aviation technologies.

However, for some of NASA’s biggest and most controversial programs, the 2017 proposal continues trends from past years’ proposals. Thus, how Congress responds will likely also follow those same trends.

What’s attracting the most attention in the budget is NASA’s proposal to cut Space Launch System funding back to $1.3 billion — which is a third less than the heavy-lift rocket got for 2016. That triggered criticism from industry organizations and some members of Congress, who argued that the administration isn’t serious about sending humans to Mars.

That SLS request, though, is in line with previous ones: over the previous four years, NASA requested between $1.3 and $1.4 billion for SLS. Each time, Congress appropriated ever-larger amounts, from $1.4 billion in 2013 to $2 billion in 2016. It’s safe to expect Congress to add to this SLS request as well.

The same is true for the Orion crew vehicle. NASA requested a little over $1.1 billion for the vehicle, less than the $1.27 billion appropriated in 2016. But again, NASA has in past years proposed similar amounts to the 2017 request, and Congress provided more money.

Planetary science is another area where there’s been a mismatch between NASA’s requests and congressional appropriations. After proposing a 20 percent cut in the planetary program in 2013, NASA had gradually restored funding, bringing it back to $1.5 billion in 2017. Congress, though, has been increasing it at a faster clip, and may well continue.

A microcosm of the planetary funding debate has been a proposal for a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa. NASA formally requested money for it only in 2015, but Congress had started earmarking funding for it two years earlier, and at far higher levels. That suggests the $50 million NASA is asking for in 2017 will be eclipsed by a far bigger appropriation.

The administration and Congress, though, can see eye-to-eye on some issues. Funding for Earth science has generated controversy in Congress, where some members have criticized the growth in spending. Yet, appropriations in recent years have closely tracked those requested increases, a positive indicator for the $110 million boost NASA is seeking this year.

The commercial crew program was, a few years ago, perhaps the agency’s most hotly debated one, with sharp divisions between NASA’s requests and congressional appropriations. Over the years, though, those differences have diminished, and in 2016 Congress fully funded the program for the first time. With the first crewed flights expected in 2017, prospects for similar concurrence in this request are good.

While the administration and Congress might have reconciled their differences on commercial crew, reaching agreement on funding for programs like SLS and Orion will likely have to wait until after the next administration takes office. When that happens, like the investment disclaimer warns, past performance may not guarantee future results.