NASA: Limited budget could lead to gap in manned missions

Administrator warns there could be a five-year lull in which U.S. astronauts would be grounded.

Candace Lombardi
In a software-driven world, it's easy to forget about the nuts and bolts. Whether it's cars, robots, personal gadgetry or industrial machines, Candace Lombardi examines the moving parts that keep our world rotating. A journalist who divides her time between the United States and the United Kingdom, Lombardi has written about technology for the sites of The New York Times, CNET, USA Today, MSN, ZDNet, Silicon.com, and GameSpot. She is a member of the CNET Blog Network and is not a current employee of CNET.
Candace Lombardi
3 min read
NASA in is danger of a possible gap in manned space flight missions because of recent budget woes.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin discussed President Bush's 2008 fiscal year NASA budget request and NASA's 2007 fiscal year appropriations from Congress at a press conference on Monday.

Both the president's recent budget requests and Congress' subsequent appropriations have been insufficient to reach all of NASA's goals on time, according to Griffin.

Michael Griffin
Credit: NASA
Michael Griffin

Bush requested $17.3 billion for NASA for the 2008 fiscal year, a 3.1 percent increase over his request for the previous year. The president's proposed budget was made public on Monday.

While Griffin acknowledged that NASA is one of the few non-defense agencies to receive 1.3 percent budget growth instead of 1 percent, he said that 3 percent is still only on par with inflation. NASA will have problems meeting the NASA Authorization Act of 2005--the five-year plan that was recommended to the agency by Congress as a result of the investigation into the Columbia Space Shuttle accident in which astronauts were killed, Griffin said.

If Congress' past behavior is any indication, NASA will not even get the 3.1 percent increase, Griffin said.

Congress approved only a 1.3 percent increase for NASA's 2007 fiscal year, about $400 million less than the president's requested $16.8 billion for NASA's 2007 fiscal year, according to NASA.

Democratic Rep. Bart Gordon from Tennessee, the chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology, also criticized the gap between the money NASA has been appropriated versus its recommended goals.

"Once again, NASA's budget request is not sufficient to do all the agency is being asked to do," Gordon said in a statement. "Exploration and human space flight are important long-term missions for the agency and our country. So are NASA's core activities in science and aeronautics. Yet this budget request and its five-year funding plan do not provide the funding needed to ensure the future health of any of these initiatives. I fear we may be heading for a train wreck if no corrective actions are taken."

NASA will make cuts to its science programs and lunar robotic missions in order to fly the remainder of its planned space shuttle missions and finish the construction of the International Space Station, according to Griffin.

Griffin said that NASA will do its best to produce the new Orion spaceship and Aries boosters, but that budget cuts over the last few years may prevent NASA from meeting its deadline to fly it by 2014. With the space shuttle scheduled for retirement in 2010, this would leave about a five-year gap in which U.S. astronauts, with no manned spaceships available, would be grounded.

"We will be able to allocate less money than planned for Orion and less for whoever wins the Aries contracts. If I am only able to give contracts later than previously planned, work will show up on the loading dock later than previously planned," Griffin said.

NASA is appealing to Congress, preparing legislative documents requesting more financial help with the transition from the space shuttle era to the new manned spaceship system.

"Yeah, we survived a similar break in the program after 1971 when we had a gap between Apollo and the shuttle. But our research facilities...were devastated during that period. People were walking away from houses and leaving them there. There was a brain drain from the program that we never recovered from," said Griffin. People left for the private sector or different industries entirely, or retired taking a tremendous amount of experience with them, he said.

NASA also announced at the press conference that it has changed its accounting structure to a simplified full-cost accounting practice. The change may initially appear to reduce NASA's aeronautics research budget, but aeronautics spending, while not at the rate the agency had hoped, has actually increased overall, Griffin said.

CNET New.com's Anne Broache contributed to this report.