Budget Cuts Could Clip NASA's Wings ; Current Figures Would Force Agency to Scale Back Space Station Plans
Peter N. Spotts writer of The Christian Science Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor
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. …