Obama Budget Plan Offers Near-Term Boost for NASA

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  Space News Business

Obama Budget Plan Offers Near-Term Boost for NASA

By BECKY IANNOTTA
Space News Staff Writer
posted: 05 March 2009
01:53 pm ET






— U.S. President BarackObama is proposing to increase NASA’s budget by 5 percent in 2010 as part of a five- year plan that provides more support for global climate change research and endorses his predecessor’s goal of retiring the space shuttle in 2010 and returning Americans to the Moon by 2020.

Obama’s budget proposal would boost NASA’s top line next year to $18.7 billion. That would be a $900 million increase over the amount NASA stands to get for 2009, and represents a $1.9 billion increase when coupled with the $1 billion for the space agency included in a $787 billion economic stimulus Obama signed Feb. 17. NASA currently is operating at its 2008 funding level but a bill funding most government spending activities for the remainder of this year is nearing passage in Congress.

Chris Shank, a former NASA budget official, praised Obama’s proposed increase, noting that it exceeds former President George W. Bush’s 2010 projection for the agency by $700 million. However, he expressed concern about Obama’s out-year budget proposal, which would roll NASA funding back to $18.6 billion in 2011 and hold it flat until 2014, when it would increase to $18.9 billion.

“More money sooner is always better for program and project planning, but in 2012 to 2013, the consequence of that flatlined budget translates into $1 billion less than was previously planned,” Shank said. “Rather than a flat-line budget profile, the Bush administration projected NASA’s top-line [budget] steadily growing by 2.4 percent a year. Hopefully, [the Obama administration] will reconsider this approach in the years ahead.”

The 2010 budget proposal submitted to Congress Feb. 26 provides only top-line budget figures for federal agencies, with further details expected in April.

Bill Adkins, a based aerospace consultant and former Republican staff director for the House Science space and aeronautics subcommittee, called the proposed 2010 budget “very generous” given the current economic climate.

“The devil is in the details, but the top line looks pretty healthy and is a clear indication that this administration believes NASA is a good investment for the country,” Adkins said. “The larger question is whether the content matches the money.”

Elliot Pulham, chief executive of the Space Foundation – a Colorado Springs, Colo.-based advocacy organization – criticized Obama’s NASA proposal as a “stay-the-course budget, not a budget for stimulus or change.”

“The budget proposal for NASA represents a disappointingly small step in the right direction. It is far from what is needed if the U.S. is to stimulate the economy, create more high- tech jobs and hold on to its eroding leadership position in space,” Pulham said in a written statement. “Combined with the lingering absence of a NASA administrator, we are missing a golden opportunity to lead and inspire at a time when leadership and inspiration are crucial.”

The budget outline calls for NASA to focus on developing new climate monitoring sensors and continue with plans to “return Americans to the Moon by 2020 as part of a robust human and robotic space exploration program.” The budget plan also calls for NASA to deliver to the international space station a $1.5 billion physics experiment called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) prior to retiring the space shuttle from service in 2010.

Congress passed legislation last year directing NASA to fly AMS to the space station, but NASA officials said at the time that the agency lacked the $300 million or so it would cost to conduct the additional shuttle launch.

While endorsing Bush’s call for going back to the Moon, the first budget of Obama’s presidency neither embraces nor rejects NASA’s current shuttle replacement plan, which features a crew capsule called Orion to be launched atop a shuttle-derived rocket dubbed Ares 1. For lunar missions, NASA plans to develop a larger shuttle-derived rocket called Ares 5 and the Altair lander.

Without being more specific, Obama’s budget outline says funds freed up by the shuttle’s retirement “will enable the Agency to support development of systems to deliver people and cargo to the International Space Station and the Moon.”

Part of that effort, the outline says, will include private-sector development of launch vehicles that can ferry crews to the space station. NASA is subsidizing development of two competing space station logistics services under its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. COTS providers Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) of , and Orbital Sciences Corp. of , are under contract to ferry cargo to the space station after completing their respective COTS demonstration flights.

Both companies, particularly SpaceX, have expressed interest in obtaining NASA funding to extend their effort to crew transport.

Obama’s 2010 budget proposal comes on the heels of the $787 billion economic stimulus package providing tax cuts, financial aid to states, and billions in federal spending, including $1 billion for NASA to use between now and September 2010.

NASA is required to submit a report to Congress by mid-April detailing how it intends to use the funds.

Chris Scolese, NASA acting administrator, issued a statement hailing Obama’s 2010 budget request as a fiscally responsible proposal that “reflects the administration’s desire for a robust and innovative agency aligned with the president’s goals of advancing our nation’s scientific, educational, economic and security interests.”