NASA to create division to meet Bush goals

Several existing programs to come under new office

January 16, 2004|By Gwyneth K. Shaw | Gwyneth K. Shaw,ORLANDO SENTINEL

WASHINGTON - NASA took an organizational step yesterday toward President Bush's new vision for the space program - and in doing so offered a clue as to where the money for the first five years will come.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration officials have declined to discuss the budget specifics of Bush's plan, which calls for building a new spacecraft that can put humans back on the moon no later than 2020. In announcing the proposal Wednesday, Bush said only that he wants Congress to give NASA $1 billion in new money over the next five years and that the agency would have to find $11 billion over that time from existing programs.

Many of the financial details will become clear when the White House submits its budget request to Congress on Feb. 2.

But in outlining how the new Office of Exploration Systems will work - and the programs that are being put under its umbrella - NASA made it clearer how the initiative will be funded.

Retired Rear Adm. Craig Steidle, who is heading the new office, said in a news briefing that several existing programs, including the orbital space plane, the effort to develop other cutting-edge spacecraft and the nuclear-propulsion research program called Project Prometheus, will be part of the division.

While the numbers are almost certain to change when the 2005 budget is detailed, the combined current funding for programs in the office total roughly $11 billion over that time, according to the five-year budget plan from 2004 to 2008 that NASA had in place before Bush's announcement.

For example, NASA planned to spend $3 billion on Project Prometheus between 2004 and 2008, including a robotic mission to Jupiter's icy moons to test the technology. It's unclear what might happen to the Jupiter mission under the new initiative, but the Prometheus research is considered crucial for faster and more efficient space travel.

The agency also projected spending more than $8.9 billion on "crosscutting technologies," including the space plane, over that time span.

Now, that money will become part of Steidle's work - which is primarily aimed at translating the vision laid out by the president into launches and missions, starting with the Crew Exploration Vehicle, a new spacecraft.

"Essentially, we're taking the funding in those particular programs and applying them to the CEV program," he said.

In moving the programs into Steidle's new division, NASA also streamlined an existing office, which will now concentrate solely on aeronautics research. The agency named longtime employee J. Victor Lebacqz to head the revamped office.

Lebacqz said aeronautics funding, which is slightly less than $1 billion in NASA's $15.5 billion budget, will not be cut and that NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe wants him to re-emphasize "the first `A' in NASA."

"No money was taken from aeronautics to support this new activity," he said.

But a chart released Wednesday by NASA shows funding for aeronautics and other agency programs, including earth science, holding steady at about $5 billion for the next 16 years, even as the rest of NASA's budget continues to grow.

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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