NASA is one the few agencies to get an increase under the new US budget, but it is not enough to prevent steep cuts. More spending on space exploration means there is no funding for a Hubble space telescope rescue, or a nuclear-powered mission to Jupiter's icy moons, and NASA's already declining aeronautics research is cut back further.
The $16.5 billion fiscal year 2006 budget request is 2.4% up on FY2005, but an 18% increase in funding for NASA's exploration programme means cuts have to be made elsewhere.
Aeronautics research, which was to have increased 5%, is instead cut 6% to $852 million and is planned to reduce to under $718 million by FY2010.
By FY2009, funding for aeronautics will have dropped almost 23% from the level planned just a year ago. The cutback comes from restructuring of NASA's Vehicle Systems programme, which has been re-focused on just four "breakthrough" technology demonstrations: subsonic noise reduction; sonic boom reduction; zero emissions aircraft; and high-altitude, long-endurance remotely operated aircraft .
The budget request reflects departing NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe's determination not to launch a Space Shuttle repair mission to Hubble. Although planning continues for a robotic rescue, the US National Research Council's verdict that such a mission is too risky "makes it a difficult hill to climb to demonstrate to the contrary", he says. As a result, the budget is based on de-orbiting Hubble safely by 2013.
Technical risk is also behind the decision to cancel the JIMO mission, planned for launch in 2015 as the first demonstration of nuclear electric power and propulsion. Instead, NASA is conducting an analysis of alternatives to identify a lower-risk mission to demonstrate nuclear electric propulsion.
Plans call for nuclear reactor and power conversion ground tests in 2008, leading to an in-space demonstration in 2014.
NASA's budget more than doubles funding for the Constellation programme to develop the infrastructure for human and robotic exploration of the Moon, Mars and beyond. The $1.12 billion requested includes $753 million to begin development of the Crew Exploration Vehicle. An additional $858 million is sought for robotic exploration of the Moon and Mars, and an increase of 17% over 2005.
After being voted an unprecedented 5% budget increase in FY2005 to kick-start its space exploration initiative, NASA is likely to face stiff opposition in Congress to its plans to deorbit Hubble and further cut aeronautics research.
GRAHAM WARWICK / WASHINGTON DC
Source: Flight International