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NASA budget cuts human flight, pushes nukes

The increasingly expensive international space station
The increasingly expensive international space station  

By Richard Stenger
CNN Sci-Tech

(CNN) -- The proposed 2003 budget for NASA would scale back spending on the international space station and space shuttle but promote the development of nuclear technology in space.

Unveiled Monday, the Bush administration proposal offers $15 billion to the space agency, $500 million more than 2002. Most NASA missions would receive slightly larger budgets in the new fiscal year, with two major exceptions.

Space station Alpha, the subject of intense criticism for billions in cost overruns, would lose roughly $230 million over its 2002 allotment of $1.7 billion.

The space shuttle program, which Bush administration budget documents scold for inefficient safety upgrades, would receive about $65 million less than its $3.3 billion last year.

In fact, the White House plan would consider outsourcing many shuttle jobs to private contractors, and even sell off some of the shuttle hardware.

"Competitive sourcing will enable the full transfer of shuttle operations and possibly some portion of infrastructure ownership to a private entity," read the proposal for fiscal year 2003, which begins October 1.

Sean O'Keefe, the new NASA chief, declined to speculate on the number of federal jobs that might be lost due to competitive outsourcing.

"We're just starting down that road," he told reporters Monday.

The Bush administration issued a report card grading the effectiveness of various NASA groups. Predictably, those involving human flight fared poorly.

So-called Outer Planet programs were given failing marks as well. Citing swelling budgets and launch delays, the Bush budget would scrap all future funds for proposed Outer Planet missions to Europa, a large Jupiter moon that some speculate harbors life, and to Pluto, the only planet that remains unvisited by a probe.

The Bush report did praise the Discovery and Explorer missions, comparatively inexpensive classes of unmanned expeditions that have roamed Mars, landed on a nearby asteroid, collected interstellar dust and orbited Earth to observe the planet, the sun and the heavens.

Launched in 1997, Saturn-bound Cassini is powered by plutonium cells.
Launched in 1997, Saturn-bound Cassini is powered by plutonium cells.  

O'Keefe said the immediate task at hand for NASA was to set priorities for missions based on scientific value, expected costs and technological constraints.

'There are really a large number of interesting things to do. We need to think about what current limitations exist," he said.

Taking a politically risky position, the Bush plan would push the development of nuclear power and propulsion for future missions into space.

The move could give a boost to troubled deep space projects that have yet to find technologically feasible propulsion systems or enough juice to conduct long-term studies on the surface of other planets like Mars.

But it could also set of storms of protests from activists who called into question the safety of past nuclear probes, citing the risks of accidental crashes should something go wrong at launch.




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