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NASA chief defends budget before lawmakers

House panel concerned science programs may be hurt

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start quoteWe have a decade's worth of hard work in front of us.end quote
-- NASA Administrator Michael Griffin

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(CNN) -- NASA Administrator Michael Griffin defended his agency's budget Thursday before the House Committee on Science against charges it guts science missions to pay for the shuttle program, international space station and a new generation of manned spacecraft.

"This budget is bad for space science, worse for earth science, even worse for aeronautics," said the committee's chairman, U.S. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-New York.

"It basically cuts or de-emphasizes every forward-looking truly futuristic program of the agency to fund operational or development programs to enable us to do what we are already doing or have done before."

Griffin countered that NASA has a lot of ground to make up to implement the Bush administration's plan to phase out the troubled space shuttle program by 2010 and focus on building spacecraft capable of a return to the moon by 2018 and later a mission to Mars.

"The United States did have these capabilities," Griffin said. "We allowed them to atrophy. We proactively made decisions as a country that caused those capabilities to go away.

"If we were sitting here today with the capabilities that this nation had purchased as of the end of the Apollo program, we could go to Mars within a decade. We have a decade's worth of hard work in front of us just to be able to get back to where we were."

The Bush administration's 2007 budget proposal calls for $16.8 billion for NASA, a 3.2 percent increase over this year's allocation. But the space agency still finds itself having to make tough funding choices to accomplish all the tasks on its to-do list.

Those tasks include returning the grounded space shuttle fleet to service, completing assembly of the space station, remaining on the cutting edge of space science and astronomy, conducting aeronautics research and developing that next-generation manned spacecraft -- the Crew Exploration Vehicle or CEV.

At least in the near term, science and space exploration programs will see budgets tightly contained to keep the manned programs flying.

Griffin said he wants to ensure the time between the shuttle program's end and and the new manned missions is as short as possible so it won't have a devastating impact on NASA's work force.

"If we terminate people, those people will go into other lines of activity. We will not get them back," he said. "We will then, when we choose to resume human spaceflight at some later date, we will have to retrain this cadre of people. We will resume our progress in a very stumbling and halting way. We will increase the risk of flight."

NASA has staged a host of science and space exploration programs in recent years, including the Mars Exploration Rovers Project, the Cassini mission to Saturn, the recently launched Pluto New Horizons mission, Earth-observing satellites and space telescopes such as Hubble, Chandra and Spitzer. Ongoing funding for existing projects is likely secure.

But money will be tight for new science and unmanned exploration missions, and those in development that have not yet launched.

Projects at risk include the Terrestrial Planet Finder, designed to seek out Earth-like planets around other stars, and a mission to Jupiter's moon Europa, where scientists think a liquid ocean likely sloshes underneath the moon's icy crust.

Science will get a 1.8 percent increase in 2007 and then a 1 percent hike in the following years.

NASA aims to put more money toward the shuttle and space station, while concurrently designing and developing the Crew Exploration Vehicle.

The agency would like to see the first test flight for the latter in 2012.

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