NASA received its full $17.3 billion request for 2008 in the omnibus spending bill U.S. President George W. Bush signed into law Dec. 26.

But the legislation which combined 11 unfinished spending bills into a single $555 billion package, by no means rubber stamps NASA’s request. Congress differed with NASA’s proposed spending priorities by directing unsought funding towards the agency’s science and aeronautics research programs at the expense of exploration-driven initiatives. The bill also provides non-requested

funding for projects NASA had either shelved or canceled in order to focus on higher priorities.

NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, which has lead responsibility for developing the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and Ares 1 rocket the agency hopes to field within five years of the space shuttle’s 2010 retirement, was funded at $3.84 billion, about $82 million less than the agency requested. Most of that reduction was absorbed by the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program, a $500 million effort to foster the development and demonstration of privately operated vehicles capable of delivering cargo and potentially crew to the international space station. Lawmakers pared back NASA’s $236 million COTS request to $160 million and imposed restrictions on making new awards (see related story on this page). The omnibus package also directs NASA to spend $42 million this year on a robotic lunar lander project the agency canceled in 2007 saying it neither needed nor could afford such a mission.

NASA’s science and aeronautics research mission directorates, meanwhile,

both were funded slightly above the agency’s request. Science stands to get $5.57 billion or about $61 million above the requested level, while aeronautics would be funded at $625 million, $71 million above the request.

The bill directs NASA to spend at least $40 million next year getting started on a slate of new Earth science missions recommended by a National Academy of Sciences panel. Lawmakers also want to see NASA spend an additional $24 million on research and analysis grants for space and Earth scientists.

One of the bill’s biggest departures from NASA’s science plans is a provision requiring the agency to spend $38.4 million this year on the Space Interferometry Mission, a multibillion-dollar space telescope project that NASA wants to postpone indefinitely.

To the disappointment of NASA supporters, lawmakers involved in the final negotiations of the omnibus bill stripped an extra $1 billion the Senate had approved for the U.S. space agency in October to help it recover financially from the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident.