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NASA tightens its belt, again

November 4, 2005 By Mark Peplow This article courtesy of Nature News.

Projects face the chop in quest to put people back on the Moon.

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NASA administrator Mike Griffin has confirmed speculation that even more of its science projects would be cut or delayed in an attempt to keep President Bush's 'vision for space' alive.

On 3 November, Griffin told a US House Committee that NASA is US$3-5 billion short on funds to finish the space shuttle programme through to its retirement in 2010. Such shortfalls mean NASA has had to get its priorities in order and make some serious cuts to close part of this funding gap. To that end, Griffin unveiled a series of belt-tightening measures that will see key research programmes in life science and nuclear energy "discontinued, de-scoped or delayed".

The bad news isn't exactly a surprise. Griffin's testimony, given in his second appearance before the committee in four months, follows much speculation about how NASA would stretch its budget to cover the retirement of the shuttle, completion of the International Space Station (ISS), and its new vision to return astronauts to the Moon.

Key research programmes in life science and nuclear energy will be 'discontinued, de-scoped or delayed'.
There have been a series of cut-backs in NASA projects over the past few years. Two planet-hunting projects, for example, were in May delayed until unspecified dates, and it was expected that many more missions would follow.

"Focus is shifting from advancing technologies for long-term requirements, to directed research and maturing technologies for near-term use," Griffin told the panel.

This largely means funnelling money away from research programmes that are not immediately relevant to the three targets of space shuttle, ISS and Moon. The savings will help to accelerate development of the new Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), destined to replace the space shuttle as NASA's astronaut vehicle.

"There is simply not enough money in NASA's budget to carry out all the tasks it is undertaking and maintain the current schedule," said House Science Committee chairman Sherwood Boehlert (Rep, New York). "NASA has gotten in trouble repeatedly in the past by making promises that are beyond its financial means to fulfil," he added.

First things first

Griffin says that NASA's life-science research will focus on helping astronauts to make lunar sorties or safe trips in the CEV, whereas plans to develop better radiation shielding or life support systems for lengthy missions to Mars are on hold for now.

Technology research is also seeing a shift in priorities. For example, developing the methane and liquid-oxygen engines that the CEV needs to access the lunar surface must take priority over projects to investigate large-scale solar power or intelligent robotics, Griffin says.

The Prometheus project, which aims to use nuclear power in space, has also been cut back. The Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter (JIMO) mission was once set to have nuclear-powered engines, but plans for that craft have been on ice since earlier this year. Griffin says that the other major use for nuclear power, to support long-duration stays on the Moon, will not be needed until after 2018. Consequently, most of the Prometheus' budget will now be spent on paying off the costs of cancelled contracts.

Happy birthday

Griffin confirmed that the construction of the ISS, which celebrated its fifth birthday this week, will be scaled down so that it can be completed before the shuttle retires. Plans for a Centrifuge Accommodation Module, which would carry a 2.5-metre-wide rotating drum to produce artificial gravity while in orbit, have been scrapped.

As for the shuttle itself, Griffin confirmed that NASA hopes to make the next flight in May 2006. Attempts to ensure that insulating foam stays safely on the craft's external fuel tanks have been delayed by the fallout from Hurricane Katrina, which disrupted work at NASA's Michoud Assembly Facility near New Orleans. Only a quarter of employees have returned to their work on the external tank at the facility.

But even with a big push to get the shuttle back on track and a cut-back in numerous projects, some are worried that President Bush's vision to send people back to the Moon might not be realistic given current funds. "I am very concerned that this Administration may not be willing to pay for the vision that it presented to the nation 21 months ago," said committee member Bart Gordon (Dem, Tennessee).

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