NASA: fine tuning of momentum Essay

The National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s requested budget for fiscal year 1986, about $7.89 billion, represents a roughly 5 percent increase over the one within which it is now working. Agency administrator James M. Beggs calls it “modest, though forward looking,” but within the generalizations and overall figures are some suprising, though small, changes of momentum, both up and down.

Included, for example, would be a second year (insofar as formal listing in the budget is concerned)) of studies to define plans for a U.S. space station, a multibillion-dollar project on whose behalf Beggs and other officials have been speechifying, lobbying and globe-trotting in search of support and collaboration from other countries as well as from various factions within the United States. For FY ’85, the administration sought, and got, $150 million to get those studies under way, and projected a $250 million sum for the following year. (Thereafter, when construction begins, the numbers are to get bigger in a hurry, with $1.2 billion projected for FY ’87.) But with budget deficits still looming before the administration, the proposed plan seeks only $230 million–a $20 7illion difference that NASA says would lead to slowing down the “phase B definition studies” of the station from 18 to 21 months.

This does not mean that the administration is tempering its commitment to the project, however. Last week, in fact, U.S. space station advocates received a boost when the first ministerial-level gathering in eight years of officials from the member countries of the European Space Agency (ESA) voted to accept President Reagan’s invitation for the Europeans to take part. ESA’s major contribution would be a laboratory module called Columbus, which would be attached to the station but which could also be detached as the basis for an independent European station. An indication of the worth of ESA’s support of the U.S. station was provided by G.M.V. Van Aardenne of the Netherlands, chairman of the ministerial conference, who is reported to have said that the ESA member countries would be increasing their contributions to ESA by 70 percent by 1990.

A subtler item in NASA’s newly requested budget in $62.9 millin from research and analysis (R&A) of planetary scientists regard R&A as the measure of the administration’s (including NASA’s own) commitment to getting the most out of planetary spacecraft missions, which have often had consideraly higher price tags in the first place.

The proposed increase is small, but it also marks the first time in four annual budget cycles that NASA has not requested less money for planetary R&A than it received the previous year. And the numbers might have been smaller still were it not for the restoration of funds by congressional committees responding to concerns voiced by the scientific community. In FY ’83, the administration requested $35.5 million; Congress raised the amount to $50.3 million. The next year, the request was for $45.5 million, a $4.8 million reduction — which was restored on Capitol Hill to $59.5 million. The year after that, NASA again sought a lower amount, $54.5 million, which Congress “re-upped”

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