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Choices in Space

November 30, 2004

The U.S. space program fared remarkably well in the huge appropriations bill just approved by Congress. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration got a hefty $16.2 billion budget for fiscal year 2005, only a tiny bit shy of what the administration had requested, and it was given unusual authority to shift money from one program to another.

The agency clearly scored a budgetary coup in a year when most federal programs were ratcheted back to make room for the costly war in Iraq and to alleviate huge deficits. Yet there is a potential for mischief in this generally ample budget. NASA will have to absorb some $1.4 billion in costs that were not anticipated when its original request was submitted. That could force the agency to make some agonizing choices that will affect the future of the manned space program and of space science.

The unanticipated costs that NASA must absorb include $291 million for a servicing mission to save the Hubble Space Telescope, NASA’s most important scientific instrument, from premature death; $762 million in cost overruns for returning the stricken space shuttle fleet to service; perhaps $200 million in earmarked funds to support pet projects of members of Congress; and $130 million to meet a percentage reduction demanded of all agencies to stay within congressional funding limits.

Congress insisted that the Hubble servicing mission and some other programs receive specified amounts, but for the most part it granted NASA unprecedented authority to move funds about from one account to another to stitch together a viable program within the available resources.

That puts a special burden on NASA to make wise choices. In most years, there has been a budgetary wall between the manned space program and unmanned scientific programs, thus providing some protection for science when the inevitable cost overruns hit the more costly manned flight programs. Now NASA will have great freedom to pillage its scientific accounts to pay for the shuttle or space station or the president’s moon-Mars exploration program, or it can raid one manned program to help pay for another, all subject to final approval by Congress.

Space officials have reportedly told congressional committees they can find most of the needed money by slicing $100 million or more from this program or that until the desired cuts are reached. Our feeling is that NASA should look very hard at terminating its two costliest programs, the International Space Station, now orbiting in a partially built state overhead, and the shuttle fleet that is being resuscitated to carry parts and astronauts up to the station. Those two programs eat up much of the NASA budget for little real gain.

The main reason for completing the station, aside from a stubborn desire to finish something once started, is concern that other nations collaborating on the station would resent being abandoned. Yet the same pressures that have led many Americans to consider the station a white elephant may also be at work abroad. It may be possible to persuade America’s international partners to accept some losses on the station in return for a truly important role in more visionary space exploration.

The one thing that has become apparent since President George W. Bush proposed putting astronauts on the moon and Mars is that no such plan can gain momentum until the station-shuttle complex is shut down.




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