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NASA: budgeting back from Challenger.

NASA: Budgeting back from Challenger It's almost a wonder the administration has a budget plan at all to keep NASA going in the coming fiscal year, with the agency struggling to recover from the Challenger disaster of 13 months ago as well as a host of other problems and hard choices. With trade-offs to be made at every hand, in fact, it is sometimes difficult to tell whether NASA is moving ahead (agency head James C. Fletcher told a Senate subcommittee this week that "we are getting the space program back on track") or losing ground.

The $9.48 billion being sought fromCongress, Fletcher noted, "provides for a strong space program conceived under considerable fiscal restraint." It is a decrease from the $10.53 billion of fiscal year (FY) 1987, but that amount included a $2.1 billion addition to build a replacement for Challenger and bring the space shuttle fleet back up to four. Not including the effect of that one-time "booster shot," the new plan represents a 12 percent increase over its predecessor, which in turn was up 9 percent from FY '86.

Yet there are conspicuous absences,some of which concern issues about which NASA has long been urged to take positive action. The Reagan administration, for example, has long spoken of the space shuttle as America's primary means of access to space, and long before the Challenger explosion it set about cutting back NASA's use of conventional rockets, or expendable launch vehicles (ELVs). From that time on, however, numerous committees, commissions, panels and other advisory groups have urged NASA not to put "all its eggs in one basket" and to bring ELVs back into the line-up. Even a "mixed fleet study" by NASA's own Office of Space Flight was in favor of their return -- "a viable and necessary augmentation to the overall launch capabilities of the U.S. government," as Fletcher put it. Yet the FY '88 budget plan includes no funds at all to accommodate a mixed fleet program.

Numerous variations on the theme areunder study within the agency, from improved versions of existing rockets (such as the "stretched Delta") to NASAhs use of new ones being developed for the Department of Defense (DOD) to an unmanned "shuttle-derived vehicle." DOD began seeking its own additional ELVs two years before Challenger blew up, but for the civilian agency, said Fletcher on Feb. 3, "no final policy determination has been made as of this date as to the number or types of vehicles which might be sought for NASA missions."

A key use sought by the administrationfor shuttles, ELVs or both is th ein-orbit construction of a U.S. space station, with hopes that it will involve substantial international participation by the likes of Europe, Japan and Canada. The project was initially supposed to cost about $8 billion, but the estimates soon grew (only in part because launch costs were added in) to about $12 billion, and NASA officials now talk about $13 billion. That uncertainty, in fact, is a major variable, Fletcher acknowledged to the senators this week, with one key issue being "how much reserve should we allow for changes along the way?"

Now less certain is the station's occupancydate, which slipped from 1992 to 1994 to what Fletcher now calls the "mid-1990s," as other agency officials suggest tht full occupancy might be as far away as 1996. The new budget plan has the station changing from mere studies (the "definition phase") to actual development, with the budget bite rising from $420 million to $767 million, an increase of $347 million.

The boost for the space station alsohappens to come at the same time as a $34 million drop in NASA's space science programs -- physics and astronomy; life sciences; and planetary exploration. Amid increases in the first two categories, the total includes a $51 million (14 percent) reduction for missions to other planets. Part of that is because NASA's next two planetary missions, the Galileo orbiter-and-probe of Jupiter and the Magellan Venus radar-mapping orbiter, are past their "funding peaks." Another bit of cost-cutting, however, will result in a two-year delay of the launch of the Mars Observer, formerly scheduled for 1990. Fletcher did not make the slowdown official in his subcommittee testimony, but, says another NASA official, "the current plan is to launch it in '92."

The only significant increase in any ofNASA's planetary science items is a 10 percent rise (to $75.3 million) for research and analysis of planetary data already in hand. Planetary scientists have long sought more money for such studies, in hopes of keeping the field alive before the shortage of new missions sends researchers and graduate students off to other jobs.
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Title Annotation:National Aeronautics and Space Administration
Author:Eberhart, Jonathan
Publication:Science News
Date:Feb 7, 1987
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