NASA Budget Request Expected to Realign U.S. Spaceflight Goals
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, a former space shuttle commander, speaks at the 215th Meeting of the American Astronomical Society in Washington, D.C.
Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls.

WASHINGTON ? NASA Administrator Charles Bolden will unveil the U.S. space agency?s spending priorities for 2011 during a Feb. 1 announcement at NASA headquarters here, according to administration officials.

President Barack Obama?s 2011 budget request is expected to realign NASA?s human spaceflight activities and investments to foster development of commercial systems capable of ferrying astronauts to the International Space Station. The request is not expected to include a much-sought after billion-dollar boost to aid NASA?s funding-hampered human spaceflight efforts.

NASA currently plans to retire its three aging space shuttles this year after five more missions. But plans to use the shuttle fleet?s replacement ? NASA?s new Ares rockets and their Orion crew vehicles ? for an eventual return to the moon are still in flux.

Next week, Bolden is expected to discuss long-awaited details of the president?s funding proposal during the Feb. 1 briefing, followed by a press conference hosted by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to rollout Obama?s research and development priorities ? including those that affect NASA goals and funding ? for the coming budget year, these sources said. The OSTP press conference is slated for 12:30 p.m. at the American Association for the Advancement of Science here.

A committee appointed by the White House last year to review NASA?s plans for U.S. human spaceflight found that the space agency lacked the funding necessary to meet its goal of replacing the shuttle fleet no later than 2015 and returning humans to the moon by 2020. The committee?s report suggested President Obama invest more in commercial spaceflight for cargo and crew trips to orbit, and focus NASA?s human spaceflight efforts are more distant goals, like the moon, asteroids or the moons of Mars.

The gap between the shuttle?s retirement and crewed Orion flights will likely be longer than NASA?s five-year estimate, the committee also found. During that time, the United States would be reliant on Russia?s Soyuz spacecraft, and potentially commercially built crew vehicles, to launch astronauts into orbit.

In addition to the Monday rollout, Bolden is also slated to host a second news conference Feb. 2 at the National Press Club here, administration officials said.

On Tuesday, a top White House budget official suggested to reporters that NASA could still see a budget increase for 2011 despite U.S. President Barack Obama?s proposed three-year freeze on most non-defense discretionary spending.

During a conference call the day before Obama?s first State of the Union address, Rob Nabors, deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB), told reporters that while NASA is among non-defense agencies otherwise subject to the freeze, not every such agency would see its budget held at current levels when Obama sends his 2011 budget request to Congress on Feb. 1.

?I?m not in a position to say how NASA fared,? Nabors said. ?But it would not be the case that a request for NASA will be identical to the request that happened last year.?

Nabors was responding to a question about whether the spending freeze means no budget boost for NASA next year.

Obama asked Congress last year for $18.68 billion for NASA for 2010 and said he intended to request slightly less for the space agency for 2011, 2012 and 2013. Sources close to the administration have told Space News that NASA now stands to get an increase for 2011, but nowhere near the $1 billion boost some space advocates have been expecting since NASA Administrator Charles Bolden met with Obama in December to discuss the agency?s future.