NASA administrator Michael Griffin has warned that the timetable for the Space Shuttle's successor, the Orion crew exploration vehicle and its Ares I launcher, is under threat because of US Congressional cuts to the space agency's budget.
Unveiling NASA's $17.3 billion fiscal year 2008 budget request last week, Griffin highlighted the $577 million that Congress is cutting from manned vehicle development for 2007.
Budget cuts could see the Orion crew exploration vehicle and its Ares I launcher's 2014 maiden flight delayed
NASA's FY2007 budget has not yet been approved, five months into the financial year, and it is operating under a "continuing resolution" that is funding the agency at the lower, $16.6 billion FY2006 budget level. Griffin believes such cuts mean Orion may not fly by 2014, the agency's target date.
Congress has directed cuts of $577 million from the Constellation exploration systems programme, $78 million from science activities and $94 million from the Shuttle programme for FY2007 after rejecting NASA's request for a 3.2% increase over the 2006 budget level. Congress is expected to approve the reduced funding level this week, after which NASA will have 30 days to resubmit its budget plans.
"I hope to convince Congress that [the FY2007] request is worth honouring. Human vehicles are our top priority," says Griffin, emphasising that the Shuttle Columbia accident report recommended replacing the 25-year-old space transport system. "I fear we are losing sight of the principles [behind the Shuttle fleet retirement decision]," he says.
"Due to the higher than expected costs of return to flight, Shuttle operations and budget cuts, I am concerned that we can have [Ares I and Orion] online by 2014. If we don't fund it, it will founder - like other efforts," says Griffin, referring to previous Shuttle replacement programmes such as Lockheed Martin's single-stage-to-orbit Venturestar and NASA's short-lived Orbital Space Plane programme.
Deputy associate administrator for exploration Douglas Cooke says that Constellation-related work had not been stopped or delayed due to the FY2007 budget situation. But he cannot say whether the Ares I-1 demonstration flight would go ahead in April 2009 as planned if NASA's budget requests were rejected.
A gap in US human spaceflight capability will mean workforce reductions that will lead to the agency and its contractors losing skilled employees who cannot easily be replaced once a new transport system is realised, says Griffin, pointing to the personnel losses endured by NASA and industry during the 1975 to 1981 hiatus caused by the gap between Apollo and the Shuttle.
Meanwhile, even before the Congress-imposed FY2007 cuts, NASA's Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission is now $50 million short of funds because the agency's FY2008 budget planning assumed a May 2008 Shuttle launch to the stricken in-orbit observatory, but the mission is now scheduled for September, adding to its costs.