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Politics

NASA Fighting to Stay in Orbit

For NASA it could be T-Minus 10 to a smaller budget.

For NASA it could be T-Minus 10 to a smaller budget. The national space agency is bracing for potentially large budget cuts next year. It's a prime target for savings as the incoming Obama administration tries to show at least some budget discipline to offset massive spending on a stimulus. But the agency, its many contractors and congressional supporters of its biggest program, namely the space shuttle replacement, won't take a budget assault lightly.

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On travel here in Huntsville, Alabama, where the replacement for the space shuttle fleet is being developed and tested, I can see the fear of budget cuts or cancelations is palpable. Several thousand government and private contractors in northern Alabama work on the Ares manned-rocket program, which is scheduled to be in service in 2015, about five years after the space shuttles are scheduled to be mothballed.  

Some figure that Alabama may not rate much say with an Obama administration, given that it overwhelmingly voted for John McCain in November and is almost exclusively Republican in its congressional delegation. Others fear that internal leaks and chatter about fundamental engineering problems with the Ares program will fuel talk of killing it, saving about $3 billion a year. (NASA's current annual budget is $17 billion).

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Even if Ares is fully funded, there will be a roughly five-year gap, from 2010 to 2015, when the U.S. will have to rely on Russia's Soyuz rockets to deliver astronauts and heavy cargo to the International Space Station. No other option but using the Russians will exist. Private sector space launch companies are talked about as an option, but they simply can't deliver. Obama and Congress may well decide to extend the life of the shuttles beyond 2010, but an extension of more than a year or so is out of the question for the fault prone and aging fleet.

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Supporters of Ares and NASA will argue next year in the budget debates in Washington and probably with some success that: 

*Ares not only is necessary to retain U.S. dominance in space exploration but also is a creator of jobs. Canceling it or paring back Ares and its parent program, Constellation, will put thousands of highly skilled workers out of work and act as a drag on the economy.

*Too much has already been invested to pull the plug, about $9 billion in the last 10 years. The program, which involves huge new rockets and a crew vehicle, is in the development and testing stage now.

*The longer development is delayed, the more the U.S. will be dependent on the Russians for U.S. space programs, and who knows what the U.S.-Russian relationship may be a few years from now.

*China is ramping up its own manned space program, including a planned manned mission to the moon around 2020-2025.

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*Budget savings from decimating NASA's budget will be negligible, compared to the deficit or even the size of the $500 billion-plus defense budget that is replete with waste and contractor fraud.

Perhaps the strongest reason for continued funding of the Ares program in particular, and NASA, in general, is political. While much of the work is done in Huntsville, an awful lot of it is spread out across the country. Businesses in nearly every state, including those with huge congressional leverage, such as California, Florida, New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Indiana, will be affected by NASA cutbacks. It's worth noting, too, that those states also lifted the flag for Obama in the election.

Bottom line: Lawmakers from these and other states won't look lightly on suggestions that NASA be a sacrificial lamb in next year's budget savings effort. If Obama's budget plan looks like a shock to NASA, look for Congress to soften or even reject suggested cuts from the White House. They won't jettison NASA's biggest program just for budget savings in an era of towering deficits.

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