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U.S. space exploration programs facing questions and proposed budget cuts

Augustine commission, NASANASA's plans to send humans back to the moon and even beyond, already under scrutiny as part of a White House–mandated review, are facing the prospect of diminished funding as well.

The House subcommittee responsible for science agency budgets has pared back in its appropriations bill the funds that President Barack Obama requested for NASA for fiscal year 2010. According to the Orlando Sentinel, "Most of the cuts were aimed at NASA's human spaceflight program." Obama requested nearly $4 billion for the agency's exploration division, but the House panel recommended trimming that to about $3.3 billion, which is $212 million less than the division's allocation this year, the newspaper reports.

Overall, the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies cut Obama's recommended budget for NASA from $18.7 billion to $18.2 billion. According to Florida Today, the subcommittee's bill should reach the full House Appropriations Committee for consideration early next week.

A statement from the chair of the subcommittee, West Virginia Democrat Alan B. Mollohan, called the "deferral" of funding "a pause, a time-out, to allow the President to establish his vision for human space exploration and to commit to realistic future funding levels to realize this vision."

That pause, Mollohan noted, acknowledges the newly formed review group headed by former aerospace executive Norman Augustine. The 10-member independent panel, whose membership was announced this week, will take a close look at the direction NASA is taking with its human spaceflight programs. Most of that direction—retiring the space shuttle next year, replacing it with a new deep-space rocket program by 2015, and returning to the moon by 2020—stems from the Bush administration, but Obama has so far largely affirmed his predecessor's goals.

The replacement rocket program, dubbed Constellation, is not looking great headed into the Augustine panel's review. Just yesterday the Sentinel noted that the beleaguered program is struggling to keep to its timeline. "Key milestones for the agency's Ares I rocket and Orion crew capsule are falling further behind schedule because of design flaws and technical challenges," the newspaper reported.

Michael Griffin, who led NASA for most of Bush's second term and has tirelessly championed Constellation, told a group of engineers at a conference Wednesday in Huntsville, Ala., that exploring space on a tight budget is not possible. "If we're going to be a space-faring nation," Griffin said, "we're going to have to spend what it takes," according to the Huntsville Times.

Photo of Norman Augustine (second from right) on a separate panel earlier this year: House Committee on Education and Labor via Flickr

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