NASA intends to forge ahead with its space exploration agenda despite direction from Congress to throttle back on a key part of it to make refurbishing the Hubble Space Telescope a top priority.

While Congress gave NASA nearly its entire $16.2 billion budget request for 2005, it cut most of the money the U.S. space agency had sought for the 2008 Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission - a major early milestone in NASA's future exploration plans - and directed NASA to spend $291 million preparing for a Hubble servicing mission.

But Congress also gave NASA permission to shuffle money between programs to meet critical requirements, an authority the space agency asked for during budget negotiations last autumn.

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe has said he intended to use that authority to put the needed resources behind the priorities President George W. Bush laid out for the agency in his Jan. 14, 2004 space exploration vision speech.

The initial NASA operating plan for 2005 that O'Keefe sent to key congressional committee's just before Christmas for their review appears to fund most of the president's priorities without inflicting deep cuts on existing programs. NASA was able to do this in part by allocating substantially less than Congress directed to a proposed Hubble refurbishing mission and raiding $150 million from an account set aside to settle contract cancellations stemming from the agency's largely abandoned efforts to develop reusable launcher technology.

Congressional aides who have seen the operating plan said it is not clear that NASA has addressed all the challenges it faces in 2005 and that many of the toughest questions - including how it will accommodate $450 million in lawmakers' pet projects - remain unanswered.

NASA declined to answer questions about the 2005 operating plan, a copy of which was obtained by Space News, until lawmakers have had a chance to review it. [Click here to review Operating Plan Expenditures.]

"When we are sure that Congress has had a chance to review the plan and get any briefings they need or questions they have answered, then we can make someone available for an interview," NASA spokeswoman Sarah Keegan said Jan. 6.

In his Dec. 23 letter to lawmakers presenting the NASA operating plan, O'Keefe wrote that he used the transfer authority they gave him to fund NASA's efforts to return the space shuttle fleet to flight status by this summer and to keep the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter mission, the Crew Exploration Vehicle program, and the Project Prometheus nuclear power demonstration all on track.

Although NASA fared better than most civilian agencies, it is beginning 2005 essentially with $173.6 million less that its request. That's because before the ink was dry on the 2005 Omnibus Appropriations Act, NASA and all other government agencies were told they would have to give back just under one percent of their budgets to keep the massive appropriations bill from busting hard fought spending limits.

While NASA's top line is slightly improved by $126 million in emergency aid Congress provided last year in the wake of the hurricanes that battered Florida's Kennedy Space Center (KSC), every dollar of that aid remains - at least for now - allocated toward repairs at KSC.

NASA is also saddled with $450 million worth of projects lawmakers want the space agency to fund this year. In his letter to lawmakers, O'Keefe complained about the number of earmarks (a total of 167, up from six in 1997). But aside from $50 million in education-oriented earmarks, O'Keefe did not explain what NASA would cut to pay for the remaining $400 million it needs. Those budget impacts, he said, would be addressed in future updates to the operating plan.

The operating plan repairs the deep cut Congress imposed on the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter program, putting $52 million behind an effort that lawmakers had pared back to $10 million in the budget bill Bush signed into law in December. Combined with $17 million NASA shifted toward the project in late 2004, the agency says the mission has enough funding behind it to make a 2008 launch.

NASA's initial operating plan departs from the direction Congress gave it to spend $291 million this year preparing a Hubble servicing mission. According to the operating plan, NASA intends to put only $175 million toward the effort this year, with the agency's Science and Exploration Systems directorates splitting the bill.

NASA also added nearly $305 million to the space shuttle program, bringing it up to $4.6 billion for the year. But NASA had told lawmakers as recently as November that it would need $5 billion for the program in 2005, an estimate driven by higher than expected bills for getting the space shuttle fleet ready to fly again. In his letter to lawmakers, O'Keefe explained that a little over a third of the $762 million in return-to-flight costs the agency faces this year are still under review. A plan for paying for those, he said, would be presented later this year.

To help cover the cost of preparing to return the shuttle fleet to flight status, NASA cut more than $100 million from within shuttle program itself including canceling several long-planned shuttle upgrades not expected to yield any safety benefits before the end of the decade and postponed construction projects.

The rest of the extra money for shuttle came from the International Space Station program, which gave back $160 million for the cause, and a long list of other NASA programs which collectively chipped in about $50 million. Some of those programs, however, could be asked to dig deeper either as NASA looks for a way to pay $287 million in return-to-flight expenses still under review or as new shuttle expenses pop up.

There are no obvious losers in NASA's initial operating plan, but one the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate - which is responsible for developing the Crew Exploration Vehicle and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter - is emerging as one of the biggest bill payers so far. Between paying its share of Hubble repair preparations and surrendering $150 million in Space Launch Initiative era efforts, Exploration Systems starts the year more than $200 million off the mark. The Centennial Challenges prize making effort and various technology development efforts suffer for it. But Project Prometheus, the nuclear power and propulsion program long a favorite of O'Keefe's would remain fully funded at around $430 million even though its flagship mission, the Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter, is being eyed for cancellation. NASA recently renamed the mission Prometheus 1 and announced that a search for less daunting initial demonstrations of the nuclear power and propulsion systems NASA needs is underway. NASA spokesman Michael Braukus said the analysis of alternatives won't be completed until April 15.

If NASA plans to cancel any programs this year, it is not clear from the operating plan. In fact, most major programs in development were insulated from all but fairly minor cuts. But there were exceptions. NASA cut $24 million of the $163 million it had planned to spend on in-space power and propulsion projects.

Similarly, the X-43 hypersonic demonstrator program that Congress hopes to keep flying with a $25 million cash infusion, is not funded in the operating plan.

Some of NASA's small spacecraft programs also fare worse in the operating plan. The New Millennium program, which has struggled in recent years to find launch opportunities for the experimental payloads it develops, would have its $82 million request cut back to $66 million. Additionally, the $96 million requested for NASA's Explorer program for low-cost, competitively selected science missions, would be cut back to $71 million.

Still, some NASA projects got additional money above what they asked for last February. In most cases the increases were to cover technical setbacks and schedule delays. For example, NASA plans to add $15.2 million to Deep Impact's budget to pay for technical problems that threatened the comet hunter's unforgiving one-month launch window. The spacecraft is slated to launch Jan. 12. NASA is also adding $3.1 million to the Swift gamma ray burst mission to pay bills still coming in from last year's launch delay.

While Congress reviews NASA's 2005 operating plan, NASA is preparing to roll out in early February its budget request for 2006.