NASA makes hard cuts in research to preserve shoot for the moon

New budget cancels a telescope and Jupiter mission, but offers aid to small firms developing cheaper rockets.

Think of Solomon in a space suit.

That sums up the role of NASA head Michael Griffin as he tries to balance President Bush's vision for manned spaceflight with the hard realities of a $16.8 billion budget next year.

It's more money than the National Aeronautics and Space Administration received this year. But the agency must find $3 billion to $5 billion for the shuttle flights to finish the International Space Station and it must field a replacement for the space shuttles to send astronauts back to the moon by 2020.

To close that gap, NASA proposes to pare aeronautics research by 14 percent. Even space science - which the agency often touts as among its "crown jewels" - will see its budget grow by only about 1 percent over each of the next five years. That means NASA won't be able to deploy an orbital space telescope designed to look for Earth-like planets around other stars or explore Jupiter's icy moon Europa - both highlighted in the president's blueprint for US space exploration and high priorities among astronomers.

The agency budget "does not buy all of the things that were on NASA's plate when I took this office" last April, said Dr. Griffin at a budget briefing Monday. Despite earlier pledges that money for finishing the space station would not come from the agency's science portfolio, the new budget in effect shifts roughly $2 billion to the space station account. "I wish we hadn't had to do it," Griffin said. "But that's what we needed to do."

Yet the budget also breaks ground for NASA, which proposes to invest $500 million over five years to nurture a fledgling commercial-rocket industry outside the usual cast of major aerospace characters. Start-ups such as SpaceX in Redondo Beach, Calif., are designing and building rockets aimed at driving down launch costs far below the shuttle's pricey $10,000 a pound. Space entrepreneurs have long complained that NASA has steeply tilted the playing field toward behemoths such as Boeing and Lockheed-Martin, even as it professed a sometimes grudging willingness to expand commercial development of space.

NASA is looking for additional, cheaper ways to routinely ship cargo and crews to the space station - allowing the agency to focus its resources on exploration rather than transportation.

"I'm tempted to say it's an experiment," Griffin said. "We are trying to help bring into being a capability that does not today exist. What we have today is mostly talk. We're devoting a substantial portion of our budget that we could use in other areas to help bring this about because it's important to us."

NASA's spending blueprint, which gives the agency a 3.2 percent increase over last year's budget, is drawing kudos from many who support manned spaceflight. But it's giving pause even to scientists who have argued a role for human as well as robotic exploration.

"Using money intended for science programs to find continued operation of the shuttle is a serious setback to the US space program," according to Wesley Huntress Jr., former associate administrator for space science at NASA who heads the geophysics department at the Carnegie Institution in Washington.

He argued the agency is using money from "a popular and highly productive program" to pay for a program slated for cancellation.

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