NASA emphasizes the basics in 2003 budget proposal

Posted: February 4, 2002

A fiscal year 2003 budget proposal released Monday by the Bush Administration would give the space agency roughly the same amount of money as in 2002 but would redirect those funds towards more basic research and development efforts.

The budget proposal released Monday would give NASA $15 billion in fiscal year 2002, an increase of less than one percent over the $14.9 billion the space agency got in the current 2002 fiscal year. The proposal was a small part of the overall $2.1 trillion federal budget proposal released Monday by the White House.

While the budget for the agency as a whole remained approximately the same in 2003 compared to 2002, there were considerable shifts of how the money would be spent within the agency. The budget increases the funding of the science, aeronautics, and technology portion of the agency by $800 million, with a corresponding $700 million drop in human space flight programs.

Those shifts were part of an effort to devote more of NASA's resources to research and development projects that focus on the core exploration and discovery priorities of the space agency, according to new NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe. The budget gave one of the first glimpses of this "back to basics" philosophy O'Keefe wants to bring to NASA.

"The President's budget proposal of $15.1 billion for fiscal year 2003 reflects the Administration's commitment to this agency's core research efforts and its fundamental mandate to advance aeronautics and aerospace science," O'Keefe said in a statement. The $15.1 billion figure he referred to includes $117 million in additional funds to pay retiree costs, part of a larger Bush Administration initiative to require agencies to pay the full cost of retirement benefits for their former employees.

In a Monday afternoon press conference, O'Keefe stressed that he wanted to "emphasize the basics" and focus on exploration and discovery projects, and the technology needed to make those missions a reality. "There are a lot of interesting things to do," he said. "We must think of specific objectives we can do uniquely."

One area of NASA where this new philosophy will be reflected is the exploration of the outer solar system. The 2003 budget proposal calls for the cancellation of the existing Outer Planets Program, an effort to develop a Europa orbiter mission and, earlier, a Pluto flyby mission. In its place will be a new effort, the New Frontiers Program, that will be modeled on NASA's successful Discovery Program of low-cost space science missions but with an emphasis on outer solar system exploration. New Frontiers missions will be selected on the basis of competitions and have a $650 million cost cap. Ed Weiler, associate administrator for space sciences, said that the announcement of opportunity for the first New Frontiers mission will be released later this year, with plans to select the mission in 2003.

NASA also has no plans to continue the New Horizons Pluto and Kuiper Belt flyby mission it selected late last year. Congress, over NASA's objections, appropriated $30 million for the mission in 2003, but O'Keefe said the agency has no plans to request more funding for the mission, effectively killing it before it can even be built. It was unclear whether the mission would be folded into the New Frontiers program in some fashion, although NASA is requesting only $15 million for New Frontiers in 2003.

In an effort to head off some objections over plans to kill New Horizons, O'Keefe said the agency would redouble its efforts to develop new technologies to shorten the flight time of outer solar system missions. The budget includes $125 million for a new Nuclear Systems Initiative to restart development of radioisotope thermoelectric generators (RTGs), nuclear power sources for deep space missions. It would also begin research on nuclear reactors that could power ion engines, creating propulsion systems that could dramatically shorten flight times to the outer solar system. Likening current propulsion technology to "exploring the West in covered wagons," Weiler said these nuclear propulsion systems would be the equivalent of "steam engines and railroads".

Human space flight was not ignored in the budget request. While funding for the International Space Station decreased in 2003, this largely reflects the transition from building hardware to launching and assembling it in orbit. The biggest challenge, O'Keefe acknowledged, would be fixing the management problems that have plagued the program, as outlined in the recent independent commission headed by former Lockheed Martin executive Thomas Young.

The budget proposal acknowledges the Young commission's recommendation that NASA spend the next two years working on reforming the station program and focusing on the "core complete" version of the station. "Our first priority is to get the core complete correct," O'Keefe said. NASA also plans to study ways to increase the amount of time on the station available for scientific work.

The budget also includes the beginning of an effort to completely privatize shuttle operations. Two review teams are currently studying ways to transfer all shuttle operations, and possibly some launch infrastructure as well, to private industry in a competitive selection process. This would allow NASA to focus on research and development, as opposed to operations, and could save money. The review teams will report on their findings later this year.

The budget proposal also raised the possibility of consolidation among NASA's ten field centers. While there was no discussion of closing any centers, the proposal recommended that the management of many activities at the Ames Research Center in California be transferred to a university-affiliated research center. The proposal also suggested that other NASA centers could consolidate with military facilities.

Immediate reaction to the budget proposal was mixed to somewhat favorable. "It is welcome and positive news that despite the setback to the Pluto and Europa missions, the proposed budget is supportive of planetary exploration," said Wesley Huntress, former associate administrator of NASA and current president of The Planetary Society. "With all the pressures on the NASA budget, especially in the troubled space station program, we take heart with the commitment to the established planetary exploration programs."

The budget proposal released Monday is only a first draft of a final budget that will not be approved by Congress until September or October. While Congress is unlikely to make major changes in the budget as a whole, in the past it has made changes to the details of the budget, adding funding for pet projects and decreasing or deleting funding for others.