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See Inside June 2006

NASA's Reverse Thrust

Cuts may be more than a mere monetary speed bump

When President George W. Bush unveiled his plan for a new moon shot two years ago, a lot of people worried that it was long on rhetoric and short on cash--ultimately forcing NASA to raid its science budget to pay for it. On close examination, though, the trajectory seemed reasonable. The money freed up by phasing out the space shuttle and the International Space Station was not an implausible amount to build a postshuttle spacecraft (known as the Crew Exploration Vehicle, or CEV) and send it moonward by 2020. A "go as you can pay" strategy would extend the deadlines if money got tight, rather than pickpocketing other programs. A modest dollop of extra funds would help cover the transitional costs. NASA administrator Michael Griffin said at a press conference last September: "In our forward planning, we do not take one thin dime out of the science program in order to execute this architecture."

Now it looks like the skeptics were right. The NASA budget announced in February mows down a scarily long list of science missions, from a Europa orbiter to a space-based gravitational-wave observatory. Research grants to individual scientists, traditionally kept safe from high-level budget machinations, have taken a 15 percent hit, retroactive to last fall; hundreds have already received "termination letters" canceling their projects. Griffin went before Congress in February as the bearer of bad news: "Fulfilling our commitments on the International Space Station and bringing the Crew Exploration Vehicle online in a timely manner, not later than 2014 and possibly much sooner, is a higher priority than these science missions during this period."

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