Although NASA insists it has not yet determined how it will cope with no budget increase for 2007, the agency’s choices are decidedly limited. Things were going to be tight even before Congress’ newly empowered Democrats announced in December that, rather than attempting to complete work on 11 unfinished spending bills for 2007, they would pursue an omnibus package that holds most federal agencies to their 2006 budget levels. For NASA, that likely means a 2007 budget of $16.2 billion, some $500 million less than agency officials were counting on.


It goes without saying that all of NASA’s mission directorates will be asked to tighten their belts, as one agency official suggested. But scrimping at the margins can only go so far, and NASA’s science and aeronautics accounts already have been stretched to the limit as the agency works to close out the space shuttle program by 2010 and field by 2014 a replacement vehicle capable of ferrying astronauts to the space station. While there may be some surplus cash in the 2007 space shuttle budget, the most obvious place to look for substantial savings is the Exploration Systems budget, which includes such big-ticket development projects as the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle, its Ares 1 launcher and the Robotic Lunar Exploration Program, or RLEP.


If NASA is to have any hope of replacing the space shuttle by 2014 – presumably after four years of being unable to independently launch astronauts into space – Orion and Ares 1 are effectively off limits. NASA Administrator Mike Griffin made that clear in a speech Jan. 11 when he said Ares is his No. 1 procurement priority in 2007.


Any attempt to cut corners during the critical systems engineering phase of the Orion and Ares efforts all but guarantees that they will be late and cost far more than currently projected – just ask anyone familiar with the U.S. Air Force’s experience on the Space Based Infrared System missile warning satellites.


That leaves the RLEP, which accounts for the only other sizable chunk of cash within the Exploration Mission Directorate’s budget. And with the $700 million Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter already well along in development in anticipation of a launch next year, the budgetary bull’s-eye sits squarely on the mid-sized lander that NASA hopes to launch around 2011. Nothing is final until the 2008 federal budget request hits Capitol Hill in February, but some NASA officials say it’s a done deal that the lander will be delayed.


With no relief in sight, now is an excellent time for NASA to begin considering alternative approaches to reconnoitering the Moon in advance of astronaut landings planned by 2020 as part of the president’s Vision for Space Exploration. One possibility is to take another look at the robotic lunar exploration architecture proposed last year by Simon “Pete” Worden, director of NASA’s
, a blueprint that features a low-cost lander that could be launched in the relatively near term.


But if NASA really wants to be bold and resourceful, it could examine what other countries might be able to bring into that architecture. European Space Agency members
, for example, have recently taken a keen interest in lunar exploration that some officials say was sparked at least in part by the U.S. Vision for Space Exploration.


The British National Space Centre is reviewing a proposal to send a pair of landers, dubbed MoonRaker and MoonLite, to the lunar surface. These landers would incorporate low-cost technologies developed by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd., a global leader in small satellites. The Italian Space Agency is expected to select a lunar mission from among several proposals this year, while the
is evaluating one of its own. Other countries planning or capable of carrying out robotic lunar exploration include


In fact it is hard to imagine a better early opportunity for international collaboration in the Vision for Space Exploration than robotic missions to the Moon. NASA would be remiss if it did not begin to look more seriously at this opportunity as it tries to stay on track with the Vision amid budgetary bad news that just keeps on coming.