NASA budget emphasizes space exploration

While science research will be diminished, a partnership with Google won't be affected.

Stefanie Olsen Staff writer, CNET News
Stefanie Olsen covers technology and science.
Stefanie Olsen
4 min read
MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.--Science will play a diminishing role at NASA as the space agency emphasizes lunar exploration in the next five years, according to a new governmental budget.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, who was appointed to the office by the Bush administration only 10 months ago, announced a $16.8 billion budget request for NASA on Monday, per recommendations from President Bush. The budget, outlined in a press briefing here at NASA Ames Research Center, is a 3.2 percent rise over expected 2006 spending. It comprised about 0.7 percent of the federal budget.

"This is a modest investment to extend the frontiers of space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research," Griffin said.

NASA's spending, Griffin said, will concentrate on implementing Bush's Vision for Space Exploration, a plan the president announced roughly two years ago to launch human missions to the moon. Science, such as studying the solar system or the origin of the universe, will play a lesser role at NASA organizations, resulting in cutbacks to divisions like astrobiology studies and life sciences at Ames Research Center.

Ames' life sciences budget was cut by roughly 80 percent in November 2005, resulting in the loss of 100 contractor jobs.

"This is a modest investment to extend the frontiers of space exploration, scientific discovery and aeronautics research."
--Michael Griffin, administrator, NASA

The cutbacks, however, will not affect Ames' partnership with search giant Google, which is part of the space agency's "innovative partnership" program and an example of how NASA hopes to contract with industry experts in areas that can enhance its work while supplementing a shortfall in resources.

Ames and Google are collaborating on large-scale data management systems and supercomputing, in which Ames hopes to discover potential efficiencies in a "hybrid" of a single system and distributed computing system, according to Mike Marlaire, director of partnerships for Ames. The two organizations also are working on so-called bio-info-nano computing, or studying efficiencies in the use of nanotechnology for space explorations, and research and development for entrepreneurial space flight.

Griffin said during the press conference that a $3.2 billion shortfall in the NASA budget last year resulted in $2 billion being cut from scientific spending, such as life sciences, and $1.2 billion being cut from space exploration. Yet Griffin has previously said in a congressional hearing that "not one thin dime" would be cut from science.

"I didn't want to," he said in answer to a question on his early stance. "We would like to grow science over the next several years, of course we would. We are at a difficult posture at the space agency," he said, pointing to the loss of the Columbia space shuttle.

Still, roughly $5.3 billion is allotted to NASA's science missions for exploring the universe, solar system and Earth. That's a roughly 1.5 percent rise from 2006 spending to 2007 and will be capped at 1 percent growth every year until 2011.

Roughly $4 billion will be allocated to exploration systems, including funds to plan and build the Crew Exploration Vehicle and Launch Vehicle to go to the moon. NASA expects the CEV to be launched no later than 2014. But current proposals from the commercial industry, such as space-interested entrepreneurs like Richard Branson or eBay founder Elon Musk, could help fuel the project's launch by 2010, according to NASA officials.

Another $3 billion is still under consideration for allocation by NASA. Part of that review includes the 10-year Sophia program at Ames Research Center, which could suffer cutbacks.

Also within the budget, NASA plans about 18 more missions into space to complete the assembly of the International Space Station and fulfill its international partnership commitments. But it will also cut back on ISS scientific research and reallocate funding to the CEV, Griffin said. Instead, NASA will look to partner with commercial or private sector partners to continue research at ISS.

Griffin said that the agency had to set priorities for the budget, and consequently, some other programs will be cut. NASA, for example, cannot afford a previously planned space nuclear R&D program, he said. In lieu of cutting back on the program, NASA will look to partner with nations like France and Japan to develop small nuclear reactors that could be applied to space, he said.

More than $724 million will go to aeronautics research. And the 2007 budget provides about $500 million for cross-agency support programs such as science and math education and innovative partnerships.

Ames, which is primarily a research center, has had to shift its focus to space exploration under new direction at NASA in order to improve its health, according to center officials.

The astrobiology unit, an affiliation of NASA scientists and 16 institutions from around the world, is on the chopping block. Marvin Christensen, special assistant to the center director said that the unit's funding will be cut by 40 percent in 2007, eliminating about 50 jobs. Funding for Sophia is also under review in 2007.

But Ames is assigned several programs that will remain funded. For example, it is in charge of the Robotic Lunar Exploration Program, as well as high-end computing, a critical facility to NASA. As part of those programs, the center will have a big say in determining how the work is distributed.

"We believe Ames is healthy," Christensen said. "We have direction and momentum...but we're not out of the woods yet.

"We've been restructuring our organization to try to align with missions out of NASA, but it's not simple because we have been a research center."