Manned-flight programs to gain at other NASA efforts' expense

Budget would cut funding for projects such as Hubble

Hundreds of local jobs threatened

February 08, 2005|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

Space scientists say the NASA budget rolled out yesterday would leave the Hubble Space Telescope to die in orbit, while starving other space science programs to help pay for the Bush Administration's drive to send humans to the moon and beyond.

For many scientists, "the mood is deeply apprehensive," said William B. McKinnon, a planetary scientist at Washington University in St. Louis, and chairman of the Division for Planetary Sciences at the American Astronomical Society.

Hubble's demise could eventually cost several hundred jobs at the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore. Officials reported no immediate threat to jobs at the Goddard Space Flight Center.

FOR THE RECORD - A table with an article about NASA's proposed 2006 budget in yesterday's Sun included an incorrect figure for proposed spending on astronomy research under the space agency's "Universe" program. Spending on astronomy research would be $1.512 billion under the President's plan, a decline of $1 million from current spending.

The president's $16.5 billion budget proposal for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration represents an overall increase of 2.4 percent in fiscal 2006.

But the largest increases will go toward continuing construction of the International Space Station and advancing development of Constellation, a new "crew exploration vehicle" that will replace the shuttle fleet and eventually carry astronauts to the moon and beyond.

NASA's Democratic supporters in Congress say they will oppose any administration attempts to short-change space science in order to pay the bills for the shuttles, the space station and the president's initiative. "The feeling is the [space] agency should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time," said one House Science Committee staffer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

As expected, the budget contains no money to send astronauts or a robot to save the 15-year-old Hubble observatory from a demise expected as soon as 2007.

Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat and longtime supporter of space science missions, particularly those based here, said yesterday she was "disappointed" by the cut and vowed to restore funding for the mission.

Steven V.W. Beckwith, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, where Hubble research is managed, called the Hubble decision "a terrible mistake."

"If we are going to continue to fly the space shuttle, there is no better use than to service the Hubble Space Telescope," he said.

Beyond Hubble

Space scientists with interests beyond Hubble fretted that the new NASA budget will also ease back the throttle on astronomy and other space research that does not directly support the president's manned flight priorities.

"They say the total space science budget is increasing," Beckwith said. "At the same time I don't see major increases for the well-studied and peer-reviewed programs ... I worry for the future of space science."

The Bush budget would increase funding for some of the same types of unmanned missions that have produced NASA's greatest triumphs in recent years, such as the Spirit and Opportunity rovers on Mars and the Cassini mission to Saturn.

Through fiscal 2010, funding for robotic exploration of the moon, Mars and other parts of the solar system would enjoy a 65 percent increase. But studies of the Earth-Sun environment, climate change and the astronomical exploration of the universe would grow by less than 2 percent.

Overall, NASA funding for space science would decline by $51 million in 2006 under the proposed budget. There are also sharp cuts in aeronautics research and education.

But the cut with the highest profile is the administration's decision not to fund any sort of Hubble repair mission. Outgoing NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe said the budget proposal provides only for development of a robotic craft to dock with Hubble after it stops working, and tug it to a safe splashdown in the Pacific.

He cited a National Academy of Sciences report late last year concluding that a robotic mission to repair and upgrade Hubble was unlikely to succeed. At the same time, he said, the safety demands established by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board for the shuttles' return to flight made a manned repair mission to Hubble highly problematic.

"The challenges of return to flight make it very very difficult to see any path for a mission to the Hubble Space Telescope," O'Keefe said.

William Readdy, NASA's associate administrator for space operations, said NASA planners concluded that "with all that we would have to do for a repair mission, we would have been playing back into what the Columbia Accident Investigation Board described as scheduling pressure."

O'Keefe did offer one slim reed for Hubble fans: the hope that scientists and engineers at Goddard will find a way to extend its life expectancy.

One promising option, O'Keefe said, is to rewrite Hubble's guidance software so it can operate on two gyros instead of three. Engineers could then shut one down and place it in reserve. That might buy an extra nine to 12 months.

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