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Pork For All

NASA, Congress and the White House have all finally agreed that they do want an early Pluto probe -- and while the CONTOUR failure report does mean that they will probably keep a somewhat closer eye on APL than planned, the lab has already succeeded spectacularly with its first Solar System probe (the "NEAR" asteroid orbiter) and is still on schedule to launch its "MESSENGER" Mercury orbiter (a mission actually considerably more complex than the Pluto probe) in March 2004.
by Bruce Moomaw
Sacramento - Mar 03, 2003
Most of this increase over Bush's originally planned budget for the SAT division consisted of classic pork -- a large number of individually small earmarks to various universities, labs and museums in the home states of the subcommittee's members.

Most of the "non-pork" increases in various parts of the SAT budget were cancelled out by decreases in other parts of it. For instance, $20 million was added to begin development of the revolutionary new "Jupiter Icy Moons Orbiter" favored by O'Keefe, with a nuclear-powered ion drive such as he had originally favored for the Pluto probe -- but $19 million of this was provided by simply moving funds into this specific project from the general funds for research into nuclear propulsion and space going nuclear power sources previously requested by Bush.

Similarly, $19 million was added to cover cost increases in the Mars program -- but all of this was pulled out of funds for new Flight Projects buildings at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (as JPL itself wished).

And $8 million was added to allow construction of animal and plant habitats for biological experiments on the Space Station -- but this was funded by completely killing Bush's $11.2 million request for a new "Generations" series of experiments on the genetic effects of space flight on various organisms.

In addition to the home-state pork, however, $95 million was finally provided for New Horizons (in addition to the other $15 million requested for the New Frontiers program). The main reason is simply that NASA itself finally changed its position and began officially backing the New Horizons mission.

O'Keefe had hinted late last year that he was changing his position. And this became clear when the White House released NASA's Fiscal Year 2004 budget request, which flatly states that the $130 million scheduled for the New Frontiers program in that year includes "funding for the New Horizons mission" as the first in the series, and also that the launch of the next mission in the series will be delayed a year or so, allowing a $25 million cut in FY 04 funding for New Frontiers while still allowing launch of its first mission (New Horizons) a bit earlier than planned.

New Horizons is expected to cost only about $500 million, as against the $650 million maximum price limit for every New Frontiers mission.

This move by itself assured a New Horizons launch by 2007. And NASA, at the same time, dropped all opposition to a 2006 launch for it if Congress was willing to provided the added FY 03 funds for that. It was, and President Bush signed Congress' FY 2003 "omnibus" federal spending bill on Feb. 20.

At the moment, things look pretty good for this mission. Its FY 03 funding is $10 million less than originally planned -- but this is simply because NASA has now delayed selection of its launch vehicle from last December to June.

Two launch vehicles are candidates -- the Atlas 551 and the more powerful Delta 4050H -- and the first test flights of the less powerful initial vehicles in the Atlas 5 and Delta 4 series have recently both gone flawlessly. (A Delta launch for the probe would cost $30 million more -- but it would also allow arrival at Pluto a year earlier, in early 2015.)

Moreover, the probe's early development costs have under-run the initial $30 million provided for it by Congress in FY 2002 by almost 25 percent. And NASA has approved the addition of a new experiment -- the "Student Dust Counter", designed by University of Colorado students to fulfill the science community's desire for dust-particle measurements in the Kuiper Belt.

  • Click for Part Three: The Contours of Deep Space

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    Do Pluto's Other Children Hide In The Shadow Of Charon
    Boulder - Feb 25, 2003
    Pluto has only one known satellite - Charon - discovered in 1978 by American astronomer James Christy. At slightly more than half the diameter of Pluto, Charon's 1,200-kilometer diameter makes it the undisputed "relative size" king of solar system satellites.

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