A Promising NASA Budget?

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Despite fears by many in the scientific community that President George W. Bush’s initiative to re-invigorate the American manned space program would cause deep cuts in NASA’s science budget, the administration’s proposed 2006 budget – announced with great fanfare on Monday – left almost all of the agency’s present science programs in place, while providing increased clarity and focus to its future plans.

Overall, the proposed budget asks Congress for a 2.5 percent increase. This is less than the 5 percent originally called for by Bush last year when he first put forth his new space initiative, but the increase compares quite favorably to the cuts proposed for a significant number of other government programs.

On the science side, the NASA budget appears mostly stable, though a handful of projects were cut and a few others experienced scattered delays.

Of the cuts, one – the Hubble Space Telescope – is politically significant and will take center stage in the debate over the space agency’s future.

The other project cut was the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter. JIMO – which recently was renamed Prometheus 1 – had been intended as the first mission under Project Prometheus, NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe’s pet project to encourage the use of nuclear-power propulsion to explore the outer solar system. With O’Keefe leaving NASA before the end of February, it is not surprising this project was given a lower priority by NASA officials.

As noted in the budget, “concerns over cost and technical complexity prompted NASA to defer” the mission. Instead of a highly risky and expensive mission to Jupiter, NASA is now reviewing the nuclear-propulsion program with its partner, the Department of Energy, and probably will conduct the first demonstration on the ground.

Other changes include downgrading Glory, a mission to study Earth’s climate. Instead of being launched as a separate mission on its own rocket, it will be incorporated as an instrument on another research satellite.

Of the scattered delays throughout the science program, many were forced on the agency in the form of $426 million worth of earmarks by Congress when it approved the fiscal year 2005 budget last November.

For example, the launch date for the Kepler mission, designed to look for extrasolar planets and originally scheduled for launch in 2007, was postponed for at least a year due to budget trims. Its money in the 2006 budget, however, appears solid.

Likewise, the Space Interferometry Mission’s launch has been delayed two years, partly because of technical issues and partly because of cuts required in 2005 to pay for the congressional earmarks.

Aside from these cuts and short term delays, NASA’s science budget was left prac tically untouched, allowing all of the already proposed projects – both in astronomy and earth sciences – to move forward effectively, though all will face the expected speed bumps associated with any new space research project.

In the larger context of the federal budget deficit, Bush’s political desire to trim the discretionary portions of the federal budget, and the president’s new manned space initiative, space scientists have remarkably little to complain about.

Though they will have to tighten their belts somewhat, to claim that the consequences to science of the NASA budget are “devastating” – as stated by the Democratic members of the House Science Committee on Tuesday – is misstating reality.

Meanwhile, Bush’s space vision, which he unveiled personally on Jan. 14, 2004, is advancing steadily. The FY 2006 budget calls for almost $1 billion (more than double what was budgeted in 2005) for the development of the Crew Exploration Vehicle, the manned spacecraft intended to replace the space shuttle fleet.

The plan is to choose two contractors this summer to begin construction of two competing prototypes of the CEV. In 2008, these companies will hold a fly-off, from which NASA will choose a prime contractor.

The budget also calls for significant research money – more than $1.5 billion – for the development by industry and academia of a number of new space technologies, from devising high-performance materials and improving closed environmental systems to refining computers so they can work better in the harsh environment of space.

In the past, much of this research money would have disappeared into the black hole of corporate welfare, producing little that could be used by NASA to further space exploration.

With this budget, however, the president’s space initiative has brought a remarkable focus to NASA. Unlike the past, every p roject has been required to justify its relevance to the goal of exploring the solar system. Whether this demand finally forces NASA to produce new and innovative space technologies – something the agency generally has failed to do in recent decades – remains as yet an unanswered question.

One sign that things really are changing is NASA’s decision to budget $160 million to pay for alternative methods for bringing cargo supplies to the International Space Station. Until now, the agency has depended entirely on the shuttle or the Russian Soyuz spacecraft for bringing all supplies to the station, a system that is expensive and carries little redundancy should something go wrong.

Because more mundane supplies, such as water, food and clothing, are easily replaceable, the agency is now considering hiring less traditional companies to provide these cargo hauling services, what Bill Readdy, associate administrator for space operations, called “some of the emerging providers” – companies such as Burt Rutan’s company Scaled Composites, of Mojave, Calif., that NASA previously has not considered – qualified to provide such services.

“What we are talking about is buying services,” Readdy noted. “We are looking for innovative solutions.” According to Readdy, NASA will issue its request for proposals to provide low-cost freighter service by this summer.

Though some will look at this budget with concern, a long-term view reveals a large government bureaucracy slowly struggling to shift gears and make a transition to a new and perhaps better way of doing business. The immediate and overall effects might be either confusion or delay to some projects, but the longer consequences of this effort should be good for both NASA’s manned and unmanned programs.

In other words, Bush’s space initiative, combined with the organizational changes instituted by O’Keefe, have served to give the agency more focus than it has seen since the 1960s.

Robert Zimmerman is an independent space historian. His most recent book, “Leaving Earth: Space Stations, Rival Superpowers, and the Quest for Interplanetary Travel,” was awarded the Eugene M. Emme Award by the American Astronautical Society for the best popular space history in 2003.


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