New US astronauts eager to "kick the tires and light the fires"
may find that their best chance to soar, at least in the near
future, comes when they board airliners for public-speaking tours.
That is one implication of the new spending plan the White House is
proposing for the US space program.
While the Bush administration is calling for cuts in departments
ranging from Energy to Transportation, the diminished numbers at the
National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) are causing
particular concern in the tight-knit space community.
They come at a time when the agency is trying to recapture some
of the visibility and frontier spirit of the early days of the
space program, with talk of missions to Mars and the construction
of the International Space Station (ISS). Almost weekly, images are
beamed around the world of astronauts in marshmallow suits snapping
a new pod on the station in a galactic version of "This Old House."
Yet it is the space station itself that is prompting the Bush
White House to act. The project faces a $4 billion cost overrun
over the next five years - more than the entire yearly budget of
the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration - and the White
House is saying, "Enough."
At $14.5 billion, NASA's proposed budget for 2002 will increase
slightly over last year. But because of big-ticket items, like the
space station, it will have tangible effects in cubicles on the
ground and in orbit.
Space station modules would have to be scrapped. Plans for a
more-spacious "lifeboat" would be shelved, limiting the size of the
crew to three. And the number of space-shuttle flights would be cut
from eight a year to six.
Some experts say it will reduce the agency's signature project to
nothing more than a modern version of Mir, the hoary Russian station
scheduled to be destroyed later this month.
"This is likely to shake public confidence in US space
leadership," warns Patricia Dasch, executive director of the
National Space Society in Washington.
At the same time, the Bush administration would sharply increase
the amount of money NASA spends on fostering a new generation of
cheaper, more reliable rockets. Cutting launch costs and reducing
risks are seen as crucial if businesses ranging from tourism to
manufacturing are to establish themselves in orbit.
"We're seeing a distinct push toward expanding commercial
opportunities in space," says Ms. Dasch.
The new budget also represents a strong signal that "there needs
to be greater work done on NASA's ability to deliver on its
promises," says Ray Williamson, a professor at The George
Washington University's Space Policy Institute. The agency long has
had a reputation for overselling the potential of big-ticket
projects such as the space shuttle and the space station while
underestimating their costs.
The proposed cuts come at a time when station construction has
moved into high gear. …