WASHINGTON -- President George W. Bush is proposing a largely stay-the-course budget for NASA, holding the U.S. space agency to an increase for 2009 that would be less than the rate of inflation.

Under the annual spending proposal Bush sent to Congress on Monday, NASA would get $17.614 billion for 2009, a 1.7 percent increase over the agency?s recently enacted 2008 budget. The White House pegs the rate of inflation for research-intensive agencies such as NASA at around 2.3 percent.

NASA Deputy Administrator Shana Dale said the agency?s budget would grow at slightly above inflation, or 2.4 percent, between 2010 and 2013.

?This increase demonstrates the president?s commitment to funding the balanced priorities he set forth for the agency in space exploration, Earth and space science, and aeronautics research,? Dale said during a press conference here announcing the budget. ?We are making steady progress in achieving these goals.?

Still, Bush?s final budget request would leave NASA funded in 2009 at about a half-billion dollars below where the agency was told it would be by 2009 when Bush first proposed four years ago building a space shuttle successor and going to the Moon.

While NASA?s overall budget has not grown as quickly as many space supporters would like, the amount of funding devoted to the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate -- the part of the agency responsible for building the new spacecraft and rockets needed to service the international space station and send astronauts to the Moon -- continues to increase at a steady clip.

Bush?s request includes $3.5 billion for Exploration Systems for 2009, an 11 percent increase over the 2008 budget. Exploration?s rate of growth would slow somewhat in 2010 under Bush?s plan but then shoot past $7 billion in 2011, the first year NASA expects to be freed from the $3.5 billion to $4 billion it spends annually on keeping the shuttle flying.

NASA officials said the proposed budget keeps the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and Ares 1 rocket on a schedule to make their debut flight to the International Space Station by March 2015. NASA?s request also would restore the money Congress cut from the $500 million Commercial Orbital Transportation Services demonstration program late last year.

NASA been criticized by some scientists and lawmakers the past couple years for proposing Science Mission Directorate budgets that will be outpaced by inflation. While NASA?s 2009 request continues that trend, the White House, as previously announced, included additional funds for Earth observation missions geared toward studying climate change.

About $1.37 billion of NASA?s $4.4 billion Science budget would go to Earth Science in 2009, a 6.8 percent increase over 2008. NASA intends to use the additional money to get started in 2009 on at least two of five new Earth science missions it expects to launch by 2015.

NASA?s Planetary Science budget also would go up by just under 7 percent in 2009, but that is significantly less than the 20 percent hike forecasted for the division this time last year. Part of the difference is explained by NASA?s decision late last year to postpone its next Mars Scout mission two years to 2013, saving some near-term development costs.

NASA?s Astrophysics budget, meanwhile, would drop 13 percent in 2009 as programs including the James Webb Space Telescope exit their peek years of development activity. Last year?s budget, however, had forecast a nearly 17 percent decline in astrophysics spending.

Heliophysics, the NASA division dedicated to studying the sun, also faces a budget cut in 2009 under the White House plan, although not as severe as it first appears. NASA?s request includes $577.3 million for Heliophysics for 2009, down from $840.9 million this year. Most of that drop -- about $256 million of it -- is due to NASA transferring financial responsibility for its Deep Space Network system of ground antennas to the Space Operations Mission Directorate. Still, the proposed budget would leave Heliophysics with a real cut of $7.5 million.

Alan Stern, NASA associate administrator for science, said the Earth science increase was paid for by the reductions to astrophysics, heliophysics, and planetary science programs.

NASA?s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate would be funded at $446 million in 2009, about $65 million less than Congress provided for 2008.

Some of the other highlights of NASA?s 2009 budget request include:?

  • A commitment to spend $2 billion in the years ahead on a flagship-class mission to a still-to-be determined Outer Planets destination.
  • Preliminary work on a long-desired Mars sample return mission that would launch by 2020.
  • Money to begin work on an ambitious Solar Probe mission. Launch date still to be determined.

In response to congressional direction, NASA?s budget now is divided into seven accounts instead of the traditional three. The biggest effect of this change is that NASA?s Cross Agency Support account, which was just over $550 million in 2008, swells to nearly $3.3 billion in 2009 as it picks up more overhead and other indirect expenses that previously had been accounted for within NASA?s mission directorate budgets. As a result of this change, comparing NASA?s 2009 request to the agency?s 2008 request would make it appear that mission directorate budgets are being cut by an average of 17 percent.

NASA?s 2009 request, however, includes 2008 budget figures adjusted to reflect the new account structure. The adjusted 2008 numbers were used in this story.