NASA Budget Would Keep Shuttle Successor on Track, Fund Earth Science

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

Under theannual 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 recentlyenacted 2008 budget. The White House pegs the rate of inflation forresearch-intensive agencies such as NASA at around 2.3 percent.

NASA DeputyAdministrator Shana Dale said the agency?s budget would grow at slightly aboveinflation, or 2.4 percent, between 2010 and 2013.

?Thisincrease demonstrates the president?s commitment to funding the balancedpriorities he set forth for the agency in space exploration, Earth and spacescience, and aeronautics research,? Dale said during a press conference hereannouncing the budget. ?We are making steady progress in achieving thesegoals.?

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

WhileNASA?s overall budget has not grown as quickly as many space supporters wouldlike, the amount of funding devoted to the Exploration Systems MissionDirectorate -- the part of the agency responsible for building the newspacecraft and rockets needed to service the international space station andsend astronauts to the Moon -- continues to increase at a steady clip.

Bush?srequest includes $3.5 billion for Exploration Systems for 2009, an 11 percentincrease over the 2008 budget. Exploration?s rate of growth would slow somewhatin 2010 under Bush?s plan but then shoot past $7 billion in 2011, the firstyear NASA expects to be freed from the $3.5 billion to $4 billion it spendsannually on keeping the shuttle flying.

NASAofficials said the proposed budget keeps the OrionCrew Exploration Vehicle and Ares 1 rocket on a schedule to make theirdebut flight to the International Space Station by March 2015. NASA?srequest also would restore the money Congress cut from the $500 millionCommercial Orbital Transportation Services demonstration program late lastyear.

NASA beencriticized by some scientists and lawmakers the past couple years for proposingScience Mission Directorate budgets that will be outpaced by inflation. WhileNASA?s 2009 request continues that trend, the White House, as previouslyannounced, included additional funds for Earth observation missions gearedtoward studying climate change.

About $1.37billion of NASA?s $4.4 billion Science budget would go to Earth Science in2009, a 6.8 percent increase over 2008. NASA intends to use the additionalmoney to get started in 2009 on at least two of five new Earth science missionsit expects to launch by 2015.

NASA?sPlanetary Science budget also would go up by just under 7 percent in 2009, butthat is significantly less than the 20 percent hike forecasted for the divisionthis time last year. Part of the difference is explained by NASA?s decisionlate last year to postponeits next Mars Scout mission two years to 2013, saving some near-termdevelopment costs.

NASA?sAstrophysics budget, meanwhile, would drop 13 percent in 2009 as programsincluding the James Webb Space Telescope exit their peek years of developmentactivity. Last year?s budget, however, had forecast a nearly 17 percent declinein astrophysics spending.

Heliophysics,the NASA division dedicated to studying the sun, also faces a budget cut in2009 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 -- isdue to NASA transferring financial responsibility for its Deep Space Networksystem 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 waspaid for by the reductions to astrophysics, heliophysics, and planetary scienceprograms.

NASA?sAeronautics Research Mission Directorate would be funded at $446 million in2009, about $65 million less than Congress provided for 2008.

Some of theother 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 responseto congressional direction, NASA?s budget now is divided into seven accountsinstead of the traditional three. The biggest effect of this change is thatNASA?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 otherindirect expenses that previously had been accounted for within NASA?s missiondirectorate budgets. As a result of this change, comparing NASA?s 2009 requestto the agency?s 2008 request would make it appear that mission directoratebudgets are being cut by an average of 17 percent.

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

Have a news tip, correction or comment? Let us know at community@space.com.