Wednesday, April 1, 2009

U.S. Federal Budget Has Plenty of Room for Space Program

ieee spectrum online
Tech Talk

When President Barack Obama signs the Federal Budget for Fiscal Year 2009, he will approve increases in funding for NASA that were endorsed by his predecessor, including money pledged to keep the controversial moon program going, to the tune of nearly US $18 billion. But that's only a start to the extra revenue set to stream toward the American space program.

Although the 2009 budget is officially a holdover of the Bush Administration, the new president could have pressed for changes before the Congress passed the legislation. He chose not to, leaving in place many earmarks coveted by lawmakers, among which are funds for several programs wanted by the space agency.

The most notable of the NASA requests is money to continue work on a project to return to the moon and then continue exploring nearby planets, known as the Constellation program and outlined in a plan called 2004 President’s Vision for Space Exploration. That plan calls for NASA to begin new missions to the moon beginning in 2020.

The current NASA budget, however, pales before the Obama Administration's guidelines for next year's funding.

Unveiled last Thursday, the proposed Federal Budget for Fiscal Year 2010 outline contains provisions to add another billion to NASA's yearly funding, which has already been granted a boost of nearly a billion dollars from the economic stimulus package Pres. Obama signed into law recently.

All the additional money, though, may not be enough to extend the life of America's aging shuttle fleet, experts observed. A report in Florida Today notes that the 2010 budget appears to include only enough to keep NASA's shuttles flying through the end of next year (with a possible extra mission added to the schedule if all goes well) before the Shuttle Transport System is phased out. Still, one administration insider the publication spoke with indicated that there may be reserves to afford extra shuttle flights when the full 2010 budget plan is released in April.

"I think that we will be talking in more detail about how we envision the plan working going forward with regard to the shuttle," Rob Nabors, deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget, told Florida Today, which closely follows Cape Canaveral. "One of the things we are planning on doing is evaluating all of the assumptions underlying the previous administration's budget, the budget that we're inheriting. And I think at this point, we will have more to say about that in April."

Meanwhile, an article in the Huntsville Times focused on the role that a local congressman played in delivering funding to the area's rocket industry, which provides NASA with its launch vehicles. Rep. Parker Griffith (D-Ala.) demurred, though, when pressed by the newspaper, saying that the increase was due to "NASA employees' reputation for excellence."

"I am pleased that this administration is showing a commitment to the space program in both words and actions ... and I am very encouraged by the president's goal of returning humans to the moon by 2020," Griffith commented. "An $18.7 billion investment is promising, but it is just the first step in many that must take place."

However, the Houston Chronicle concluded that the budget numbers represented a "political blow" to the local economy, which relies prominently on the presence of NASA's mission control facilities. In a news item from last Thursday, the paper reported that the 2010 federal budget outline "dashed the hopes of NASA backers" keen on keeping the shuttle program intact in the future. Even though overall funding for the space agency was increased, the Chronicle said that Houston lawmakers "had desperately sought more money to bridge a projected five-year gap in manned space operations between the shuttle's retirement and the initial flight of the Orion spacecraft."

Still, the Houston paper admitted that the "mixed bag" funding for NASA included not only more money for manned space operations but also for space-based research on global climate change and aeronautics research on aviation safety, air traffic control, fuel efficiency, and noise and emissions reduction.

It quoted Acting NASA Administrator Christopher Scolese as saying that the Obama budget proposal "reflects the administration's desire for a robust and innovative agency aligned with the president’s goals of advancing our nation’s scientific, educational, economic and security interests."

It will be interesting to see how all the money flowing NASA's way will be turned into sustainable benefits to the American economy and standing in the world going forward. After all, it's a model that has worked well before.

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