The Obama Administration has unveiled a budget proposal and future plan for NASA that would maintain the US space agency's funding at 2010 levels through 2012 - and beyond - but falls short of previous funding plans.

The $18.7 billion funding request submitted 14 February is about $300 million below the amount requested last year but well short of the $19.5 billion recommended to keep the agency running in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, signed last October. The White House had originally planned to put NASA on track for a more than $20 billion annual budget by 2014, but the latest proposal would freeze top-line funding for the agency at $18.7 billion for the next five years.

In spite of coming in more than $700 million below previous plans, priorities for 2012 - and beyond - remain the same, says NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, including bolstering fledgling commercial space initiatives and building a heavy-lift rocket and multi-purpose crew vehicle for manned space missions beyond low-Earth orbit.

But Bolden is reluctant to put NASA's major projects such as the heavy-lift rocket - which Congress wants by 2016 - or landing on an asteroid, on a timeline.

"Times today are very difficult, fiscally," Bolden says. "It's too early for me to give definitive dates for any of the exploration programmes. Our goal is to meet the dates given to us by Congress and the president. We're going to have to make small steps. So we will be moving incrementally."

The White House requested $3.9 billion for space exploration programmes overall, which includes $850 million to field commercial rockets and spacecraft to carry crew and cargo to and from Earth orbit, $1 billion for work on the multi-purpose crew vehicle and $1.8 billion for continued development of a heavy-lift rocket. NASA's current plan for heavy-lift rocketry is derived from the Ares booster family that is used to launch the shuttle, but Robinson says the choice is not yet set in stone.

"We are still working with industry to see if this is really the most cost effective solution," she says.

Space operations would be funded at $4.3 billion under the proposal, include $2.7 billion for keeping the International Space Station running. The proposal is down from the $5.5 billion authorised but not enacted for 2011 and 29.5% off from the $6.1 billion spent in 2010.

Much of the cut would come from the $1.8 billion reduction to space operations accounts, reflecting the expected 2011 closure of the space shuttle programme. Budget projections for 2013 include a lingering $65.8 million for the shuttle programme, however, says NASA chief financial officer Beth Robinson.

"It's going to take some time to close out this program," Robinson says.

Source: Flight International