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NASA Budget Request Favors Exploration, Limits Science

NASA’s 2007 budget proposal would curb growth in science spending to allow for continued construction of the international space station while stepping up development of new spacecraft and launchers to replace the shuttle and carry astronauts to the Moon.

Overall, NASA’s budget would rise by just 1 percent, or about $170 million, under the 2007 request the White House sent to Congress Feb. 6. NASA officials, however, were quick to point out that the $16.792 billion budget request amounts to a 3-percent increase if $350 million in hurricane-recovery money Congress added to NASA’s 2006 budget is left out of the equation.

PRIVATE tabstops:<*t(189.000,0,” “,)> NASA Administrator Mike Griffin said the spending plan would permit the agency to fulfill its obligations to the international space station program , field the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) no later than 2014 — “and potentially much sooner” — while maintaining significant investments in science missions and aeronautics research.

Griffin said the request demonstrates the White House commitment to carrying out the Vision for Space Exploration that President George W. Bush unveiled in 2004. But Griffin also acknowledged that some NASA supporters would be displeased with certain aspects of the budget.

“NASA simply cannot afford to do everything that our many constituencies would like us to do,” Griffin said. “We must set priorities, and we must adjust our spending to match those priorities.”

The biggest change in the 2007 request concerns the amount of money NASA plans to spend on science missions in the years ahead. NASA’s Science Mission Directorate — which builds and operates planetary probes, space telescopes and Earth-observing satellites — would see its budget increase just 1.5 percent to $5.33 billion in 2007 and then level off to 1-percent annual increases thereafter. Last year’s NASA budget forecast showed science spending growing 8 to 9 percent annually through the end of the decade.

The change of plans frees up some $4.6 billion through 2010 that NASA otherwise would have spent on science missions. Griffin, who said last year he would not cut “one thin dime” from science to help pay for the shuttle and CEV programs, acknowledged during a Feb. 6 budget briefing that he had no choice but to go back on that pledge. “I didn’t want to do it, but that’s what we had to do,” he said.

By holding science spending essentially flat and cutting several hundred million dollars from Space Operations and Aeronautics accounts, NASA was able to provide its Exploration Systems Mission Directorate with the funding needed to get rolling on the CEV and its shuttle-derived launcher. But even Exploration Systems will have to make tough choices to live within a smaller-than-expected budget over the next five years. Exploration Systems’ budget for 2006-2010 is $1.5 billion less than previously projected, not counting money that was transferred to the directorate along with responsibility for space station logistics and robotic lunar exploration. The directorate’s budget looks especially tight in 2009 and 2010, but relief would arrive in 2011 in the form of billions of dollars that would become available when the space shuttle is retired, according to NASA estimates.

NASA’s 2007 request also fixes the previously identified shortfall of several billion dollars on the shuttle and station programs , according to William Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for space operations. Griffin told Congress last year that the shuttle program was underfunded by $3 billion to $5 billion through the end of the decade. Gerstenmaier told reporters Feb. 8 that additional scrutiny revealed the figure to be $3.7 billion and that that sum has been added to the Space Operations Directorate’s five-year budget.

NASA also has reduced to 16 the number of shuttle missions it intends to fly to the space station before Sept. 30, 2010, the agency’s deadline for retiring the fleet. Gerstenmaier said two logistics flights have been eliminated with the expectation that European, Japanese or even commercial cargo systems can pick up the slack.

A Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission tentatively targeted for late 2007 would bring total shuttle manifest to 17 flights.

NASA officials noted that nearly one-third of the agency’s total budget remains devoted to science missions, up from one-quarter in 1992. But below-inflation increases for science combined with mounting costs on key projects — most notably the $4.5 billion James Webb Space Telescope — will force NASA to delay some new projects and cancel others.

Mary Cleave, NASA associate administrator for science, said projects being deferred include the Terrestrial Planet Finder, the Space Interferometry Mission, the Solar Dynamics Observatory, and the Global Precipitation Measurement mission.

Among the projects slated for cancellation are Hydros, NuStar and possibly the airborne Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy , according to Cleave.

NuStar, short for the Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array, was a Small Explorer-class mission selected for study in 2003. In 2005, NASA elected to continue studying rather than start development of the $130 million mission. On Feb. 7, the day after NASA’s budget briefing, Cleave sent the NuStar team a letter saying NASA could no longer fund the project.

Hydros, a $175 million mission to measure soil moisture from space, also has reached the end of the road. NASA picked Hydros in 2002 as an alternate Earth System Science Pathfinder project should either of the top two picks, the Orbiting Carbon Observatory and Aquarius ocean-salinity mission, encounter difficulties during development.

The Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy is a 747 jetliner outfitted with a German-supplied telescope. Although nearing completion, the observatory already is several years past when it was supposed to be flying. Cleave said during the budget briefing that the project would be reviewed this spring for possible termination. The Universities Space Research Association — the observatory’s prime contractor — issued a press release the next day announcing it would be ready to begin initial flight tests in late 2006. Operations would start in 2008 under the current schedule.

NASA’s request contains no money for a mission to the jovian moon Europa, despite a congressional directive to get started on such a project in 2007.

NASA’s proposed science budget drew a rebuke from the Planetary Society. The Pasadena, Calif.-based space exploration advocacy group issued a press release the morning of the budget rollout accusing the Bush administration of “blurring its vision for space exploration.”

“Using money intended for science programs to fund continued operation of the shuttle is a serious setback to the U.S. space program,” said Planetary Society President Wesley Huntress, who ran NASA’s science programs during the 1990s. “NASA is essentially transferring funds from a popular and highly productive program into one scheduled for termination.”

House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) also voiced displeasure with NASA’s space science spending plan . “Science funding should not be taking a back seat to operational programs that have much less impact,” Boehlert said in a statement. “We have to be sure that we are not demonstrating that science is a ‘crown jewel’ of NASA by seeing how much we can get for it at the pawnshop.”

Boehlert, who will convene the first NASA budget hearing of the year Feb. 16, also expressed disappointment about the aeronautics cuts, as did the Aerospace Industries Association, a trade group here.