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Funding Photo Opportunities Billions Of Miles Away Tests Political Will

New Horizons cannot wait for nuclear based propulsion systems
by Bruce Moomaw
Los Angeles - Jan 21, 2003
Pluto is a tiny world, much smaller even than our moon -- and even with its oversized moon Charon, it makes up a vastly smaller and simpler system than the giant planets, each of which, with its retinues of dozens of moons and rings, is practically a miniature solar system in itself. An orbiter is simply not very important to study Pluto any time in the next few decades.

So planetary scientists greatly prefer a near-term nonstop flyby of Pluto and Charon to a far more expensive, later-arriving orbiter -- and they made that fact clear in the "Decadal Survey Report" commissioned by NASA itself from the planetary science community last summer to recommend the best program for exploration of the Solar System over the next decade.

Largely as a result of that pressure, both houses of Congress last year took the remarkable step of flatly defying the loudly expressed wishes of both NASA management and the White House, and inserting an extra $105 million of funding into NASA's FY 2003 budget to begin development of the "New Horizons" Pluto flyby spacecraft in time for it to be launched in January 2006 and thus use Jupiter to catapult itself toward Pluto.

After years of resistance, it seemed certain that NASA was finally going to be dragged kicking and screaming into flying this mission. But just when Pluto's advocates thought they had finally beaten the odds, and were assured of success, fate threw another curveball at them. This was the success of the Republican Party in the November 2002 elections, which returned control of the Senate to the Republicans.

The reason is that there was a second very important factor that had nudged Congress toward overriding the White House to approve New Horizons -- the fact that the chairman of the Senate's VA-HUD Appropriations Subcommittee, which oversees NASA funding, was Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, who is famous for her ferocious determination to steer as much funding as possible to the large number of NASA-connected centers and institutions in her home state.

And one of those institutions is the Applied Physics Laboratory of Johns Hopkins University, which has begun to compete seriously with California's JPL as a director of Solar System probes -- and which proposed the "New Horizons" concept that won NASA's competition for plausible Pluto probe designs in early 2001.

The Subcommittee -- and, later the main Senate Appropriations Subcommittee -- unanimously approved defying the White House to provide funding for New Horizons, and the Subcommittee's ranking member, Kit Bond of Missouri, indicated public support for it, as did the corresponding committees in the House.

Moreover, after Congress did this, NASA officials began to drop strong hints that they were, on reexamination, no longer inclined to oppose it (at least strongly). But no one who observed the process doubted that Mikulski's chairmanship, due to the Democrats' control of the Senate, was a strong factor in overriding continuing White House skepticism about the probe.

Since Congress as a whole delayed its final vote on FY 2003 NASA funding till after the election (mostly due to the seriously confused state of NASA's manned spaceflight program until very recently), the funding was subject to revision after the post-election Congress took power -- and the Bush Administration soon proposed still bigger tax cuts, and bigger cuts in government spending than before.

So there was serious speculation that Congress might now respond to pressure from the White House and cancel New Horizons funding again -- just when final irreversible commitment to a near-term Pluto mission had been about to occur.

Sure enough, on about January 14 the Planetary Society -- which had been a major lobbying group for the mission -- put out an emergency "Action Alert" on its website, urging the mission's supporters to put pressure on Congress: "The new Republican-controlled Congress seems to be acceding to the president's request to start over on the FY 2003 budget, and simply approve his year-old [original budget] request -- which cancelled the Pluto-Kuiper mission...It is very possible -- some people are telling us it is likely -- that the New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt will be stopped cold."

Sources tell "SpaceDaily" that the Planetary Society's high-ranking officials have now said that they were depending (in the absence of any better information) on general rumors about what might happen.

However, an examination of the past few days' actual Congressional developments indicates that this panic was outdated almost as soon as it was published, and that -- while New Horizons' safety is still far from assured -- the Senate, at least, is probably still strongly inclined to support the mission.

What has actually happened, as of January 19, is the following. The House, in accord with standard procedure in such a situation, did pass a "Continuing Resolution" that would simply have funded all governmental agencies at the levels requested by the White House -- but the Senate was always free to amend that resolution, and did just that on January 15 with an amendment unanimously approved by the new GOP-controlled Senate.

And part of the amendment is a reset of NASA's FY 2003 funding, from both the White House's original request and the Democrat-run Senate's earlier level. The new figure calls for a reduction of $35 million in NASA's "Human Spaceflight" division from the figure originally requested by the White House and then approved without change by both the Senate and House committees last year.

This is not surprising, since NASA's entire manned spaceflight program has since been radically changed by the cancellation of most of its Space Launch Initiative to develop a cheap reusable launch vehicle, and the transfer of those funds to a new program for an "Orbital Space Plane" launched on an expendable booster in order to rescue the staggering Space Station program by allowing the Station to have a permanent 6-man crew.

Meanwhile, the Senate has now ended up cutting only $41.5 million from its previous funding for NASA's "Science, Aeronautics and Technology" division -- which had been fully $200 million above the White House's original request.

$105 million of that increase was the New Horizons funding; the other $95 million was a widely scattered collection of smaller earmarks, many of them classic home-state pork for the Subcommittee's members.

Since the Senate still wants to spend $158.5 million more than Bush's original request, then, even if none of the other earmarks were cut at all, this would still leave a large chunk of remaining money for New Horizons.

Although the current text of the Senate amendment says nothing about how the money inside this major division of NASA is to be subdivided, it seems very probable that most or all of that $41.5 million cut is instead in the smaller earmarks -- many of which were pure pork for Democratic Senators who are now in the minority and GOP Senators who are now under orders to toe the White House's new line.

And so it seems extremely likely that most or all of the $105 million necessary to ensure a 2006 launch of New Horizons will still be provided, and that this in turn is because the White House no longer disapproves of the mission.

A 2006 launch of New Horizons is still not a sure thing, for the House has yet to declare its own response to the Senate amendment -- after which negotiations within the next few weeks will settle the final 2003 figure for NASA.

(The House had earlier topped the Senate by adding fully $300 million to the "S.A.T." division of NASA, $195 million of it being smaller earmarks -- including $40 million to continue study of the desirable but very expensive Europa Orbiter mission.)

But if the White House no longer wants to stand in the way of this mission, then its final and irreversible approval in the next few weeks is virtually assured.

Moreover, even if the worst happens and funding is NOT provided for a 2006 New Horizons launch, the mission is not totally doomed. Continuing studies of the design for the New Horizons spacecraft indicate that it will be a good deal lighter in weight than thought -- and that this would actually allow it, if need be, to skip a Jupiter flyby altogether and be launched directly from Earth to Pluto in February 2007 while still arriving in time to beat the 2020 deadline considered crucial to minimize the risk of an atmospheric freeze out by Pluto.

In fact, the most recent studies indicate that it may be lightweight enough to be launched directly from Earth to Pluto as late as 2008 and still arrive by 2020 (although, obviously, a shorter trip by way of Jupiter would still be both far better scientifically and less expensive overall).

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Europe's Great Leap Upwards
Los Angeles - Jan 06, 2003
There have been several interesting developments in the past month where the space science programs of the European nations are concerned. They're a mixed bag -- although, on the whole, they're rather discouraging. Funding remains a serious problem for space science in virtually every country, given its very high cost relative to other forms of research.

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