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SCIENCE & SPACE

NASA gets a budget increase

Griffin: Funding still tight for science and space exploration

By Kate Tobin
CNN

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(CNN) -- The Bush administration's 2007 budget calls for $16.8 billion for NASA, a 3.2 percent increase over this year's allocation. But the space agency still finds itself having to make tough funding choices in order to accomplish all the tasks on its "to-do list."

"There's never enough money for everything NASA wants to do, so let's not be silly," NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said at a Monday press conference in Washington. "There is enough money in the budget to support the president's priorities, as they have been stated."

Those priorities include returning the troubled space shuttle fleet to service, completing assembly of the international space station, remaining on the cutting edge of space science and astronomy, conducting aeronautics research and developing the next generation manned spacecraft that will return astronauts to the moon and later on to Mars. (Watch NASA Administrator Michael Griffin talk about the agency's goals -- 15:21)

It's a full plate, by anyone's reckoning. And, at least in the near term, science and space exploration programs will see their budgets curtailed in order to keep the manned programs flying.

"We took a couple of billion out of science and a billion and a half out of the exploration line, and made up what we needed to make up," Griffin said. "I wish we hadn't had to do it, I didn't want to, but that's what we needed to do."

Science and exploration programs include the wildly successful Mars Exploration Rovers Project, planetary probes like the Cassini mission to Saturn, the recently launched Pluto New Horizons mission, space telescopes like Hubble, Chandra and Spitzer, and Earth-observing satellites. This part of the NASA budget had experienced substantial growth in the last decade or so. Ongoing funding for existing projects is likely secure.

NASA Associate Administrator for Space Science Mary Cleave reiterated that Mars exploration will move forward.

"We do have a robust Mars program," she said. "Every other year we're going to be launching to Mars, and there will be flights of opportunity available for exploration instruments. So it's not like we are not doing Mars. We're doing substantial Mars."

But money will be tight for new science and unmanned exploration missions, and those in development that have not yet launched. Projects at risk include the Terrestrial Planet Finder, designed to seek out Earth-like planets around other stars, and a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa, where scientists think a liquid ocean likely sloshes underneath the moon's icy crust.

Science will get a 1.8 percent increase in 2007, and then just a 1 percent increase in the years following. That will allow NASA to put more money toward the space shuttle and the space station.

"We, of course, would like to be able to grow science for the next few years at a higher level than 1 percent. Of course," said Griffin. "But we are in a very difficult posture right now in the space agency. We are still recovering from the loss of Columbia, we have to deal with that. The human space program was seen very clearly after the loss of Columbia to be suffering from a lack of strategic direction, a lack of clear goals, things and issues that were brought out in fullness by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board. Those issues did exist and do exist. "

The space shuttle fleet remains grounded in the wake of Discovery's post-Columbia disaster "return to flight" mission, launched July 26, 2005.

About two minutes after liftoff, a camera mounted on the shuttle's external fuel tank showed a piece of debris falling away from the orbiter. Digital photographs of the external tank taken as it was jettisoned from the shuttle showed a gouge in the insulating foam on a part of the tank called the PAL ramp.

Analysis later determined that a briefcase-sized piece of foam weighing 0.9 pound broke away from the tank shortly after solid rocket booster separation.

The foam did not strike Discovery, but it was a near-miss -- and far too close a call considering the recent past.

With the exception of that one Discovery flight last summer, the shuttle fleet has been grounded since February 1, 2003, when the shuttle Columbia broke apart over Texas while on landing approach to Florida's Kennedy Space Center. All seven astronauts aboard died.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board eventually concluded that a 1.6 pound piece of foam insulation broke off during launch from the shuttle's external fuel tank, striking and cracking a panel on the orbiter's wing.

NASA engineers say they now understand much better why the tanks are shedding foam, and how to minimize the problem. NASA officials say they hope to resume shuttle launches later this year, perhaps as early as May. And they say they will make a decision after the next shuttle launch as to whether NASA will attempt a servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.

But in the more than three years that NASA has grappled with the shuttle problems, assembly of the space station has been at a standstill. Jump-starting that process, and finishing assembly by the time the shuttle fleet is retired in 2010, is a priority for NASA.

NASA Associate Administrator William Gerstenmaier says the agency thinks it can finish the station with 16 more shuttle missions.

"Again, the goal is to minimize the number of flights associated with assembly, and we're going to continue to do that. We're going to figure out the most efficient way to put the space station together to use the minimum number of flights. But if something unforeseen were to happen that's a major event, we do have some flexibility to accommodate that in the sequence.

Once the station is complete and the shuttle is retired, NASA plans to launch the next generation manned spacecraft, called the Crew Exploration Vehicle, or CEV, as early as 2012. In keeping with President Bush's Vision for Space Exploration, announced in January 2004, the CEV is intended to return astronauts to the moon by 2020.

NASA hopes that spacecraft will eventually be adapted to send astronauts to Mars.

"We are thinking about going to Mars," said Scott Horowitz, associate NASA administrator for exploration. "Everyone that's working on this is thinking about going to Mars. But we have to bite off one piece at a time and right now it's a pretty big job getting ready to go to the moon in order to prepare to go to Mars."

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