Obama orders manned space program review

NASA's fiscal 2010 $18.7 billion budget request includes near-term funding boost for post-shuttle moon program, but $3.1 billion in cuts through 2013.

The Obama administration's fiscal 2010 NASA budget request includes $630 million in additional near-term funding for development of follow-on rockets and spacecraft needed for the agency's post-shuttle moon program, officials said Thursday. But most of the increase is from the administration's economic stimulus package, and projections through 2013 show a $3.1 billion reduction in overall funding for the program compared with 2009 projections.

Unveiling NASA's $18.7 billion 2010 budget on Thursday, acting Administrator Chris Scolese said the Obama administration had ordered an independent review of NASA's plans to replace the space shuttle with a combination of manned and unmanned Ares rockets, Apollo-style Orion capsules, and lunar landers needed to establish research stations on the moon by the early 2020s. The new rockets are the central elements of what NASA calls the Constellation program.

"You can expect a new administration coming in wants to understand where we're at, and is this the best way to go forward," Scolese said. "That's the purpose of the review, to understand that. Clearly if we're on the wrong path we should change. If you're asking me, 'Do I think we're on the wrong path,' no, I don't. We need to go off and demonstrate that. The review team needs to look at it and understand what we're doing and offer suggestions on how we could do it better."

A concept image showing NASA's Ares 1 rocket taking off. NASA

The review is expected to be completed by August. In the meantime, NASA will continue work on the Ares 1 rocket and Orion capsules the agency hopes to begin flying in March 2015. But contracts needed for initial development of the unmanned Ares 5 heavy lift booster needed for NASA's planned return to the moon are on hold pending the results of the review.

NASA's $18.7 billion budget request includes $1 billion in Recovery Act money and funds the addition of one shuttle flight to deliver an already-built physics experiment to the International Space Station.

Including next week's launch of the shuttle Atlantis on a fifth and final mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA plans nine more shuttle flights through September 30, 2010, the end of the fiscal year. If one or two flights slip beyond that target, NASA will need additional funding but the Obama administration has indicated it would support such a request if needed.

"What does this budget represent? I was surprised, in the last month I've seen the president three times," Scolese told reporters Thursday. "And I think that's an indication that NASA is something that this administration really cares about. The fact that we were highlighted in the budget discussions today with the (president's) science adviser is another indication of that. And I think you see it in this first bullet here, a $630 million increase to exploration, a $456 million increase to science and a $264 million increase to aeronautics. Those are significant increases."

Even so, the picture is much less rosy in the out years. Projections through 2013 in the fiscal 2010 budget package feature an asterisk after totals for the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate responsible for space station operations and development of the Constellation program.

The asterisks mean those numbers may change based on the results of the upcoming manned spaceflight review. But as of this writing, exploration faces $3.1 billion in cuts through 2013.

"We're up this year and next by about $630 million," agreed Douglas Cooke, associate administrator for the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate at NASA headquarters. "Over that time period, it's down about $3.1 (billion)."

Former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin said in a recent speech the projected funding shortfalls threaten America's leadership in manned space flight.

"In the last five years two presidents and two Congresses have provided the top-level direction necessary to ensure that the root cause of Columbia's loss--the lack of a guiding strategic vision for NASA--never happens again," Griffin said. "But apparently something more is needed. We're not matching the words with the necessary actions at the staff level. How soon we forget.

"Let me be clear. In a democracy, the proper purpose of the OMB (Office of Management and Budget) is not to find a way to create a Potemkin Village at NASA. It is not to create the appearance of having a real space program without having to pay for it. It is not to specify to NASA 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."

Griffin said "no one can wrest leadership in space from the United States. We're that good. But we can certainly cede it, and that is the path we are on."

Sen. Bill Nelson, (D-Fla.), said he believes President Obama understands the value of space exploration and "I believe that's why the president has committed to finishing all nine space shuttle missions, regardless of how long it takes; and, to make full use of the International Space Station."

"This is a step in the right direction," he said. "But down the road the administration's budget does not match what candidate Obama said about the future of our space program. Still, he's assured me these numbers are subject to change, pending a review he has ordered of NASA."

A longer version of this story is available on the CBS News Space Place web site.

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About the author

    Bill Harwood has been covering the U.S. space program full-time since 1984, first as Cape Canaveral bureau chief for United Press International and now as a consultant for CBS News. He has covered more than 125 shuttle missions, every interplanetary flight since Voyager 2's flyby of Neptune, and scores of commercial and military launches. Based at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Harwood is a devoted amateur astronomer and co-author of "Comm Check: The Final Flight of Shuttle Columbia." You can follow his frequent status updates at the CBS News Space page.

     

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