With NASA needing more money sooner than expected if it is going to shave as many as four years off the development of a space shuttle replacement, the White House sent Congress a revised budget request that would provide an additional $292 million for the U.S. space agency’s efforts to design and build the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) and new launcher.
The additional money, if approved by Congress, would allow NASA to spend $1.4 billion in 2006 on Project Constellation, which includes the CEV, the vehicle to launch it and robotic missions meant to pave the way for returning humans to the Moon. The White House proposes to cover the increase by reducing what it previously had planned to spend on the Project Prometheus nuclear propulsion and power initiative and a number of advanced technology development efforts geared toward longer-term payoffs.
The revised budget plan also would transfer $135 million requested for a lunar robotic exploration program from NASA’s Science Mission Directorate to Exploration Systems, the mission directorate responsible for Project Constellation.
When NASA and the White House prepared the agency’s 2006 budget request last year, NASA was planning to develop the CEV on a schedule that would yield an operational vehicle in 2014, four years after the space shuttle’s planned retirement. NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, sworn in two months after NASA’s budget request was sent to Congress, has decreed that a four-year gap between retiring the shuttle and fielding its replacement is unacceptable and he has pledged to accelerate the development of the CEV as much as possible.
NASA has two teams in the running to build the CEV: One team is led by Lockheed Martin and the other is lead by Northrop Grumman with Boeing signed on as its major partner.
NASA announced July 12 that it had given both teams separate contracts worth $28 million to spend the next eight months refining their concepts and incorporating any changes NASA might call for once it completes a 60-day Exploration Systems Architecture Study that is expected to further defines the design parameters of the CEV. That study, according to NASA spokesman J.D. Harrington, should be completed by Aug. 1 with NASA’s call for improvements ready for release by autumn.
NASA plans to select one team to help design and build the CEV by April next year, according to Harrington. Under NASA’s earlier plans, the agency would have waited until late 2008 to make a decision on which team it wanted to build the CEV.
While freeing more funds to start work on the CEV was the major purpose of the so-called budget amendment that the White House Office of Management and Budget sent to Congress July 15, that was not the only purpose.
The budget amendment also asks Congress to allow NASA to cancel or defer a number of robotic Mars exploration efforts for a savings of $98 million and make an additional $30 million down payment on a Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission.
Although NASA intends to wait until after it has conducted at least two successful space shuttle missions before making a formal commitment to send a shuttle crew to service Hubble, the agency is going ahead with preparations for such an undertaking on the assumption that the mission ultimately will be approved. NASA has not said exactly how much it expects a Hubble servicing mission to cost, but the budget documents sent to Congress July 15 say that most of the money would come from reducing NASA’s investment in the Terrestrial Planet Finder program, a proposed telescope or set of telescopes designed to detect and image Earth-like planets orbiting nearby stars.
The White House documents also ask Congress to support adding $88.3 million to NASA’s Earth-Sun System program to fully fund a stand-alone Glory climate monitoring mission to pay for extended operations of a number of satellites currently on orbit, including the Tropical Rainfall Measurement Mission, and to keep the Solar Dynamic Observatory on schedule for a 2008 launch.