by John Rhea
WASHINGTON — The new NASA budget request, while projected to keep the space agency at its current annual spending plateau of about $15 billion over the next five years, nonetheless represents an attempt to shift resources from the operating costs of the Space Shuttle and International Space Station to areas of greater relevance to industry: science, aeronautics, and technology.
Starting with fiscal year 2003, which begins Oct. 1, NASA officials would increase the science category from $8.8 billion — it is running $8 billion this year — to $10.6 billion by 2007. The human space flight operations category over the same period would stay at around $6 billion, down from this year's $6.8 billion.
This redirection would free money for technology-intensive efforts in such areas as space science (due to rise from $3.4 billion to $4.5 billion over the five-year period) and aerospace technology (from $2.8 billion to $3.5 billion).
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe described the request as a "$15 billion portfolio with targeted priorities ... and strategic objectives" of which the 2003 budget is a start. O'Keefe gave his news briefing on the budget at NASA headquarters prior to the budget submission on Feb. 4
NASA's continuing problem, however, is the high operating cost of the Space Shuttle, which the new budget does not attempt to correct. Shuttle fixed costs, regardless of the number of flights, are expected to continue at the current rate of $3 billion a year through 2007 and beyond. In fact, during the new budget year all four or five scheduled Shuttle missions are planned to service the space station.
Where NASA officials say they hope to trim spending, in fact, is in the space station, which has become something of an embarrassment to the agency because of its continuing cost overruns and schedule slippage. Spending for the space station was $2.1 billion last year, $1.7 billion this year, and due to drop to $1.5 billion in the new budget. From there it is projected to stay at around $1.1 billion in the out years. This is normal for any program of that size as it switches from development to operations.
However, past NASA attempts to hold the line on the space station, in which it is cooperating with the Russians and other countries, have led to a series of disappointments. A task force headed by former astronaut Thomas Young found that space station costs would reach $30 billion and that it would not be operational until 2006.
O'Keefe, who joined the new administration team as deputy director of the White House Office of Management and Budget last February, had been one of NASA's severest detractors before succeeding Daniel Goldin as head of the agency last November. He criticized NASA's admission of a $4 billion cost overrun in the space station construction, telling members of the House Science Committee last fall that the agency was in need of new leadership.
These continuing financial obligations cut back on money available for new programs. Yet one bright spot is NASA's plan to develop a new generation of launch vehicles. This program would explore the use of radioisotopic thermoelectric generators, or RTGs, and ion propulsion to speed up unmanned science missions, says Edward Weiler, associate administrator in NASA's Office of Space Science. For example, Weiler says, conventional propulsion methods require 17 years for a spacecraft to reach the planet Pluto.
Today's space vehicles are essentially ballistic projectiles that receive their momentum from the initial firing of the rocket stages and then coast the rest of the way. Yet an RTG-ion propulsion system would provide continuous thrust throughout the flight at much greater efficiencies in terms of specific impulse.