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Obama's NASA budget supports shuttle retirement, return to Moon
Posted: February 26, 2009

The Obama administration's proposed 2010 budget provides $18.7 billion for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. Including $1 billion that went to NASA from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, the new budget proposal represents a $2.4 billion increase over 2008 funding levels, according to the White House Office of Management and Budget.

The budget blueprint continues to support the Bush administration's directive to finish the space station and retire the shuttle in 2010 and to return astronauts to the moon around the end of the next decade.

"NASA's astronauts and robotic spacecraft have been exploring our solar system and the universe for more than 50 years," according to an OMB budget overview. "The agency will create a new chapter of this legacy as it works to return Americans to the moon by 2020 as part of a robust human and robotic space exploration program.

"NASA also will send a broad suite of robotic missions to destinations throughout the solar system and develop a bold new set of astronomical observatories to probe the mysteries of the universe, increasing investment in research, data analysis, and technology development in support of these goals."

In a short statement, acting NASA Administrator Christopher Scolese said "the $18.7 billion budget proposal for 2010 is fiscally responsible and 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."

"This budget ensures NASA maintains its global leadership in Earth and space research, and it advances global climate change studies, funds a robust program of human and robotic space exploration, allows us to realize the full potential of the international space station, advances development of new space transportation systems, and renews our commitment to aeronautics."

The budget also endorses research on global climate change, saying NASA will use National Research Council recommendations to guide development of new environmental research satellites and sensors "to ensure continuity of measurements that have long-term research applications benefits."

"I think it's a strong statement on the part of the Obama administration that they want a success-oriented space program, that they're committed to a vision of exploration," John Logsdon, professor emeritus at George Washington University and founder of the Space Policy Institute, told CBS Radio. "They are intending to retire the shuttle in 2010 and conduct a balanced program. So I think it's a very strong budget."

In the wake of the 2003 Columbia disaster, the Bush administration ordered NASA to finish the space station and retire the shuttle by 2010. At the same time, the agency was told to begin development of a new, safer manned spacecraft that could carry astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit and eventually, on to the moon.

The Constellation program that eventually was approved calls for development of a new rocket called Ares 1 that is made up of a five-segment shuttle solid-fuel booster and an advanced Apollo-era hydrogen-fueled upper stage. The Ares 1 would be used to boost new Orion crew capsules into orbit. A much more powerful, unmanned rocket called the Ares 5 would be developed later to launch lunar landers and to propel landers and Orion capsules on to the moon.

The Ares 1 will not be operational before late 2014 or early 2015. Between the retirement of the shuttle in 2010 and the debut of Ares 1/Orion, NASA astronauts will be forced to hitch rides to and from the space station aboard Russian Soyuz rockets.

Obama said during the presidential campaign that he hoped to narrow the five-year gap, but it's not clear how the new budget addresses that issue.

"That's a situation we put ourselves in by a decade or more of decision making," Logsdon said. "And there's really not a band-aid that can fix it."

Critics have attacked the Constellation architecture on a variety of fronts, arguing other designs offer more flexibility, comparable safety and lower costs. The OMB's 2010 budget overview does not mention Ares rockets by name or indicate whether the new administration supports the current architecture beyond endorsing a return to the moon.

While few details were included in the overview released today, the new budget reflects President Obama's campaign promise to look into adding one additional shuttle flight in 2010, presumably to carry a sophisticated physics experiment called the the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the space station.

"NASA will fly the space shuttle to complete the international space station and then retire the shuttle in 2010; an additional flight may be conducted if it can safely and affordably be flown by the end of 2010," the overview stated. "Funds freed from the shuttle's retirement will enable the agency to support development of systems to deliver people and cargo to the international space station and the moon."

As for the space station, "NASA will continue to assemble and utilize the international space station, the permanently crewed facility orbiting Earth that enables the agency to develop, test, and validate critical space exploration technologies and processes. NASA also will continue to coordinate with international partners to make this platform available for other government entities, commercial industry, and academic institutions to conduct research."

Said Logsdon, "President Obama has delivered, between the stimulus package and this proposed increase in the budget, on his promise to up the NASA budget by $2 billion. It's a little disappointing that the out years don't show any additional increase above inflation. But this is a pretty substantial budget."