WASHINGTON — Former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin said the United States is in danger of giving up its leadership in space and that staff-level White House budget officials – not the president or Congress – are largely to blame.

Speaking at the National Space Club’s annual Goddard Dinner here April 17,
warned that the forthcoming White House budget proposal contains bad news for NASA’s human exploration program.

praised U.S. President Barack Obama for putting forth a 2010 budget outline that reiterates support for retiring the space shuttle next year and replacing it with a new system capable of supporting the international space station beyond 2015 and enabling a human lunar return by 2020.

“All of that is good news,”
said, according to a prepared text of his speech. “But work at the staff level continues out of view of the nation’s elected leadership, and in a recent passback to NASA from the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), the news is not so good.”

While the White House released a budget outline in February that calls for spending $18.7 billion on NASA in 2010 – a $900 million increase over the enacted 2009 level – a detailed breakdown of Obama’s NASA proposal is not due out until early May.

OMB spokesman Kenneth Baer declined to comment on the details of NASA’s budget until they are released, but said Obama supports NASA’s exploration efforts.

“The president is very committed to human space exploration and believes that NASA has a critical role to play in pushing the bounds of human understanding and achievement,” Baer said April 22.

According to
, however, Exploration Systems stands to get short shrift.

“After a small increase this year, Exploration Systems at NASA goes down by $3.5 billion over the next four years,” he said.

Combined with almost $12 billion worth of reductions NASA’s Exploration Systems Directorate budget sustained during former President George W. Bush’s second term, spending over the long haul stands to fall $15 billion short of what was projected for NASA’s Moon-bound human space exploration initiative since it was announced in 2004.

Hardest hit, according to
, will be the elements of NASA’s Constellation program needed to enable the first human Moon mission since Apollo 17 flew in 1972. The Constellation program encompasses not only the space shuttle replacement system – the Orion capsule and its Ares 1 launcher – but also the Ares 5 heavy-lift rocket and Altair lunar lander.

“Funding for lunar return in the Constellation program was already less than $4 billion in the years prior to
said. “This was to be allocated to early work on the Ares 5 heavy-lifter, and the Altair lunar lander. With only a half-billion dollars now available, this work cannot be done.”

building a new lunar-capable spacecraft,
making steady progress on its human spaceflight program and
planning to launch astronauts as soon as 2015,
space leadership hangs in the balance,

“No one can wrest leadership in space from the
United States
. We’re that good,” he said. “But we can certainly cede it, and that is the path we are on.”

, who recently accepted a professorship position at the
, said the top-level direction NASA was given by the White House and Congress in the wake of the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident has been undermined “at the staff level.”

“Let me be clear. In a democracy, the purpose of the [White House Office of Management and Budget] is not to find a way to create a PotemkinVillage at NASA,”
said. “It is not to create the appearance of having a real space program without having to pay for it. It is not to specify how much money shall be allocated for human lunar return by 2020. The proper purpose of the OMB is to work with NASA, as a partner in good government, to craft carefully vetted estimates of what is required to achieve national policy goals. The judgment as to whether the stated goals are too costly, or not, is one to be made by the nation’s elected leadership, not career civil service staff.”

Space News staff writer Becky Iannotta contributed to this report