NASA must face up to budget realities and prepare for a future with restricted finances by cutting its clothes to suit its cloth

NASA's eight-year development timetable for the Space Shuttle replacement, the Orion crew exploration vehicle and its Ares I booster, is facing a budget crunch that was as inevitable as the gravity that makes launching men into space as difficult as it is. Iraq war or no Iraq war, the US budget was not going to support the yearly above inflation increases President George Bush set out for NASA in the vision for space exploration he first outlined in 2004.

Now the Democrat-controlled US Congress has inflicted a $577 million cut in the 2007 budget for NASA's Constellation exploration systems programme, which is developing the new manned vehicles needed to realise the vision. With his 2007 budget yet to be approved, five months into the new fiscal year NASA administrator Michael Griffin last week unveiled his FY2008 funding request, which is at least half a billion dollars larger than his now lame duck 2007 request.

Griffin rejects any cuts. He presents his arguments for replacing the Shuttle as though the Constellation programme is written in tablets of stone because Bush launched it and the pre-2006-election Congress endorsed it. The former NASA chief engineer's emotional commitment to Constellation development and Shuttle retirement was demonstrated last week by his abrupt response to a reporter asking if he had considered not grounding the Shuttle as planned in 2010. "No," he said.

Yet the reality facing the embattled rocket scientist is that for five months NASA has been funded at FY2006 levels, almost $700 million less than his 2008 request. And this week Congress could decide to what degree it wants to hobble Constellation this year. NASA will have the opportunity to resubmit its 2007 budget, but it is clear that the timetable for a Shuttle replacement by 2014 is at death's door.

With a new US president with different priorities to take over in 2009 in the wake of a divisive war, NASA's future appropriations are likely to force a delay to the Orion/Ares I maiden manned flight beyond 2014. If the Shuttle is retired in 2010, a lengthy Orion/Ares delay creates a nightmare scenario for aerospace professionals like Griffin, who remember the loss of talent and experience during the five-year US manned spaceflight hiatus between Apollo and Shuttle.

It is time for NASA to think about Plan B, and there are signs one is in formation. Last month Flight International revealed NASA's secret third launcher, Ares IV, and that NASA was considering continuing to use the International Space Station (ISS) to 2020. Flight understands NASA staff have conducted unapproved internal studies about continuing the Shuttle beyond 2010 as they expect the next president to dump Constellation.

But the new US president taking office in 2009 will still have to square the same circles Bush and Griffin have struggled with. NASA's budget is not going to increase and it will continue to have the same obligations to its ISS partners. And the Shuttle still needs to be replaced, even if it flies on to 2020.

The US aerospace industry will still face research and development challenges as the European Union boosts R&D spending to €597 million ($770 million) a year. The scientific establishment will continue to lobby for robotic missions and senior Democrats will demand action on global warming.

Flight's Plan B for NASA is: it should commit to using the ISS to 2020 Shuttle should not be retired in 2010, but reduced to an ISS supply fleet of two the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services programme to resupply the ISS should be fully funded Orion should be retained, but the Ares launchers dumped in favour of one of NASA's heavily studied, truly Shuttle-derived launch vehicles and NASA's scientific missions should investigate only planet Earth and climate change.

Aeronautics research should be hived off into a resurrected National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics and supplemented by industry. That would only remove just over $500 million from NASA's $16 billion-plus budget and that half billion could be boosted by investment from US states, universities and the likes of Boeing and Lockheed Martin.

With this plan aeronautics would get the focus it deserves, NASA would meet its international obligations and the Shuttle-derived launch vehicle retains a potential lunar capability in the 2020s. Without a new plan, NASA could still achieve the impossible, but Congress must remember Apollo astronaut Gus Grissom's dictum: "No bucks, no Buck Rogers."

Source: Flight International