Published online 23 July 2004 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news040719-19


Bush's space vision loses focus

US budget for sending astronauts to Moon and Mars is slashed.

US plans for missions further afield may have to be put on hold.US plans for missions further afield may have to be put on hold.© PhotoDisc

President George W. Bush's project known as the 'Vision for space exploration' looks likely to stay firmly on the launch pad after budget cuts at NASA were supported by a key government committee yesterday.

The budget proposal gives NASA $15.1 billion in 2005, $1.1 billion less than it requested, and $229 million below the agency's budget this year. The full House and Senate is likely to vote on this bill later this year.

The cuts strike hardest at some of the initiatives announced with great fanfare by Bush in January this year. For example, he promised to send humans back to the Moon by 2020, as a stepping stone for human exploration of Mars and beyond. But a mere $372 million has been provided of the $910 million needed to kick-start the project.

"We simply could not afford to fund the vision," admits James Walsh, chairman of the subcommittee that recommended the cuts earlier this week. The US House of Representatives Committee on Appropriations, which is responsible for overseeing all budget proposals through its subcommittees, ratified the proposals yesterday.

NASA's administrator Sean O'Keefe says that without the cash, the 'Vision for space exploration' will remain nothing more than a vision.

In an open letter sent yesterday to Bill Young, the chairman of the Committee on Appropriations, O'Keefe tried to persuade Young not to accept his subcommittee's proposals. "The President's budget proposes the means to support the 'Vision for Space Exploration', while the subcommittee's position does not provide the resources," he wrote.

O'Keefe added that space science would undoubtedly suffer as a result: "The recommended funding level for NASA would adversely affect its ongoing science and technology programmes."

Return to flight

“We simply could not afford to fund the vision.”

James Walsh
Subcommittee chairman of the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee

NASA will, however, get the full $4.3 billion that it needs to return the space-shuttle fleet to active duty. This is expected to happen in the spring of next year. After the loss of the space shuttle Columbia on 1 February 2003, it has been seen as a matter of principle within the space agency to get its remaining shuttles running again as soon as possible.

But the space shuttle is due to be phased out by 2010, to be replaced by a 'next generation' piloted vehicle. The tightened budget now provides only about one-quarter of the proposed development costs of this new craft, which would hamper its proposed deployment by 2014.

Other initiatives hit include Project Prometheus, which aims to develop nuclear-powered engines for craft such as the Jupiter Icy Moon Orbiter (JIMO). This ambitious mission would send JIMO to visit three of Jupiter's moons (Callisto, Ganymede and Europa), which may harbour vast oceans beneath their icy surfaces. The $230 million withheld from this project looks likely to delay the proposed 2012 launch date.

There is some good news for NASA, however. After the successes of the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, a robotic Mars mission got the full $691 million that the agency had requested. 

Subcommittee chairman of the House of Representatives Appropriations Committee