NASA's proposed 2004 budget quietly released

Posted: February 3, 2003

NASA released on Monday a proposed $15.5 billion budget for fiscal year 2004 that provides funding for a number of new programs, but the aftermath of the space shuttle Columbia tragedy could greatly alter the budget in the months to come.

The budget, which covers the fiscal year that begins on October 1, 2003, was released Monday at the same time President Bush released the overall $2.23 trillion federal budget proposal for 2004. NASA released its budget with no fanfare, canceling a planned briefing by Administrator Sean O'Keefe in the wake of the shuttle accident.

The proposal, which was completed before the Columbia accident, would give $15.47 billion to NASA in 2004. That figure represents a 3.1% increase over the 2003 budget proposal, an increase slightly ahead of the rate of inflation. Most of the top-level NASA programs would see little or no increase with the exception of space science, which would go from under $3.5 billion in 2003 to $4.0 billion in 2004.

Underlying the budget proposal is a reorganization of space agency's major divisions. Rather than the five "enterprises" NASA currently uses - space science, earth science, aerospace technology, biological and physical research, and the human exploration and development of space - the agency would create two high-level "appropriation accounts" titled Science, Aeronautics, & Exploration and Space Flight Capabilities. Organized under Science, Aeronautics, & Exploration would be space science, earth science, aeronautics, biological and physical research, and the new education initiative. Space Flight Capabilities would include the space shuttle and space station, as well as the Space Launch Initiative and other technology programs.

The space shuttle program, the focus of current attention, would receive a sizable boost in the 2004 budget. The program would see an increase of $182 million, or nearly five percent, to $3.97 billion in 2004. That figure is designed to support a flight rate of five missions a year, and includes $397 million as part of a five-year, $1.7-billion program to upgrade the shuttle and allow it to continue operating into the next decade. That portion of the budget will likely come under the most scrutiny, and be subject to the most change, as investigations into the Columbia tragedy continue.

The intended focus of the new budget was a number of new initiatives. Foremost among them was Project Prometheus, a well-publicized effort to develop nuclear-powered propulsion technologies for future missions. Prometheus would receive $93 million in 2004 and nearly $2.1 billion through 2008. That amount would be on top of the billion-dollar Nuclear Systems Initiative (NSI), a program announced last year to develop nuclear power technologies for spacecraft; NSI would get $186 million in 2004.

The first mission to use propulsion technologies developed by Project Prometheus will be Jupiter Icy Moon Orbiter, a new mission announced in the budget proposal but leaked to the press last week. The spacecraft, scheduled for launch "in the next decade", would use a nuclear propulsion system to allow it to move among three large moons of Jupiter - Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto - and study them in great detail. The mission supercedes Europa Orbiter, a previous mission proposed to orbit Europa only.

The budget also includes $31 million for a new initiative to study optical communications technologies for future planetary missions. The program, with an estimated total cost of $233 million over five years, would allow future missions to use lasers to transmit data at far higher data rates than currently possible using conventional radio wavelengths. NASA plans to first demonstrate the technology on a 2009 Mars orbiter that will serve as a telecommunications relay spacecraft.

The budget, notably, also includes $130 million for the New Horizons Pluto mission. For the last two years NASA has attempted to kill the program by not including any funding for the mission in its budget proposal, but each time Congress added funding for it. The budget also includes funding for Deep Impact, a comet mission scheduled for launch in 2004. The fate of that mission had been uncertain in recent months as NASA reportedly considered canceling the mission because of budget overruns.

In space science, NASA proposed in the budget a new program, Beyond Einstein, to study fundamental physics. The program, funded for $59 million in 2004 and $765 million over five years, would support the Laser Interferometer Space Antenna mission to study gravitational waves and the Constellation-X x-ray observatory. The program will also include missions later in the decade called Einstein Probes, which will be competitvely-selected missions similar to the Discovery program of planetary science missions.

Other initiatives included in the 2004 budget proposal include programs to study climate change, aviation security, and quiet aircraft engines and related aviation technologies. The budget would also offer $39 million in 2004 and $347 million over five years to study long-duration human spaceflight. The education program would get $170 million in 2004, including $2 million for the Educator Astronaut program announced last month.

The Space Launch Initiative, a program radically revamped in 2002, would get just over $1 billion in 2004. About half the funding would be given to efforts to develop the Orbital Space Plane, a manned spacecraft to be launched on top of an expendable booster that could be used to ferry crews to and from the space station and also serve as an lifeboat for the station. The remainder would be spent on a variety of next-generation launch technology programs.

The release of the budget proposal is only the beginning of a months-long effort by NASA and Congress to work out a budget for the space agency. The effort is complicated by the fact that Congress has yet to approve a 2003 budget for NASA, over four months after the fiscal year began. NASA and most other federal agencies, other than the Defense Department, have been operating on a series of stopgap funding bills. A final NASA budget is expected to be approved later this month, although the House of Representatives and Senate have yet to work out the differences between their versions of the budget.