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Fiscal 2008 NASA Budget Funds Orion-Ares, But Fiscal ’07 Cuts Threaten Delays

By | February 5, 2007

      NASA unveiled a $17.309 billion budget for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2008, a 3.1 percent increase from the $16.792 billion that was requested for the current year.

      In later years, the total NASA budget is projected to rise 1.8 percent to $17.614 billion in fiscal 2009, 2.3 percent to $18.026 billion in fiscal 2010, 2.4 percent to $18.460 billion in fiscal 2011, and 2.4 percent to $18.905 billion in fiscal 2012.

      That $17.309 billion request for fiscal 2008 provides $3.924 billion for space exploration systems work including contracts to further the next-generation Orion crew exploration vehicle and Ares I lifter programs, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said at a press briefing today.

      But, Griffin noted, under cuts Congress is considering, NASA loses hundreds of millions of dollars in the current fiscal 2007 “that is coming out of exploration systems,” which “I am concerned” places in jeopardy the goal of achieving initial operating capability for Orion-Ares not later than 2014.

      Should those cuts eventuate, then the Orion-Ares program will be delayed, and “move to the right” to later years, delaying the time when the United States returns to the moon.

      Griffin said he plans to discuss those potential cuts with members of Congress.

      If one sees a viable, vibrant space program as vital – and Griffin said he strongly holds that conviction – then “this is a strategic capability for the United States,” he said.

      To have the program proceed and run competently, Griffin indicated, it must be run with predictability.

      “A new program must be assured of … sustenance of resources,” he said.

      However, he added, if those cuts come to pass in Congress, then NASA will soldier on and make the best of it. If those cuts occur, then NASA won’t be able to obligate as much money to the contractor for Orion, Griffin said. “Work will show up on the loading dock later than planed,” he said.

      The new space vehicle system includes the Orion vehicle under an initial $3.9 billion contract that NASA awarded to Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT] last summer, and the lifter contract that NASA will award later this year.

      Griffin warned that even a temporary cutback in support for space programs can have a lasting, damaging effect. He recalled that in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a cutback in funding support for space programs saw people walking away from homes, quitting their jobs in a “brain drain,” and others leaving after the first flight or two of the shuttle fleet.

      This overall new, safer space exploration system would replace the aging space shuttle fleet, which saw the devastation of the Space Shuttle Columbia orbiter in 2003 after its wing was damaged by a chunk of foam insulation.

      NASA personnel “were extremely disturbed by the loss of the shuttle and the loss of seven lives,” Griffin said of the orbiter breakup and disintegration during reentry.

      Griffin was firm that the old space shuttle fleet will be retired on schedule in 2010, and won’t fly beyond that date.

      That deadline mandates a race against time, because only the shuttles are large enough to complete construction of the International Space Station, and it will take multiple shuttle flights each year to finish the job by 2010.

      There would then be a gap before Orion-Ares vehicles fly in 2014.

      Overall, the $3.924 billion for exploration systems also would include commitment to buying commercial cargo and crew services to support the space station, if those services are successfully demonstrated and cost-effective, Griffin said.

      As well, NASA has accepted a management challenge to identify cost savings in space operations and will defer some advanced capabilities efforts if commercial service costs exceed the current program budget.

      Also, Commercial Orbital Transportation Services will see some management shifts.

      The Lunar Reconaissance Orbiter with a Lunar Crater Observation and Sensing Satellite secondary payload will be launched in late 2008, according to NASA budget briefing documents.

      For space operations, the agency is proposing $6.792 billion in fiscal 2008, including four to five shuttle missions to the space station in the current 2007, another four to five in 2008 including a servicing mission to keep the Hubble Space Telescope alive and improved, four flights in 2009 and one in 2010 at this point, though more contingency flights may be added that year.

      Space Shuttle Atlantis may be retired after that Hubble mission.

      Griffin also took umbrage at complaints that NASA is paying for its exploration missions such as the Orion-Ares system by slashing funds for science, research and other programs. Such allegations “are incorrect,” Griffin said, asking how it is that Orion-Areas and other exploration programs are in fat fiscal city if they face cuts.

      While science program spending decreases to a 1 percent growth rate in the new budget from several times that pace in recent years, that’s just a temporary correction that will last until resumption of something more like a 2.4 percent annual rise in the next decade.

      He said looming budget cuts aren’t causing NASA leaders to consider eliminating the Hubble rescue mission to free up some money. “We’re not giving any thought to scrubbing the Hubble mission,” he said. Griffin just last year announced the mission would be undertaken.

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