NASA budget plan saves telescope, cuts space taxis

HOUSTON (Reuters) - A compromise spending plan for NASA preserves the over-budget replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope and halves President Barack Obama’s request for money to spur development of commercial space taxis, officials said on Tuesday.

From ground-based telescopes, this cosmic object - the glowing remains of a dying, sun-like star - resembles the head and thorax of a garden-variety ant. This NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope image, released on February 1, 2001, of the so-called "ant nebula" (Menzel 3, or Mz3) shows even more detail, revealing the "ant's" body as a pair of fiery lobes protruding from the dying star. REUTERS/NASA

Overall, the U.S. space agency would receive $17.8 billion for the fiscal year that began October 1 - $924 million less than the White House requested and $684 million less than it received this year.

The compromise, approved by a House and Senate conference committee, is part of a “minibus” appropriations bill that also includes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. The full House is expected to consider the bill on Wednesday.

The spending plan, which was posted on a Congressional website on Tuesday, authorizes $3.8 billion for human space exploration programs, including $1.9 billion for a proposed heavy-lift rocket and $1.2 billion for a deep space capsule to fly astronauts to the moon, asteroids and other destinations in the inner solar system as a follow-on program to the International Space Station.

A House bid to cancel NASA’s over-budget James Webb Space Telescope, a successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, was scuttled, though the compromise bill caps spending on the program at $8 billion.

Overall, NASA’s science programs would receive $5.1 billion, about $155 million more than its 2011 budget. About $530 million of that amount would go toward the Webb telescope.

NASA has said it would delay other science programs to keep the telescope on track for launch in 2018.

The bill cuts Obama’s request for $850 million to speed up development of commercial passenger spaceships to $406 million.

“We’re always appreciative of whatever dollars the appropriators appropriate to us,” Kathy Nado, a manager at NASA headquarters, said at the American Astronautical Society meeting in Houston. “Whatever dollars they give us we will be able to effectively spend.”

The agency is currently funding space taxi development work at Boeing and three privately held companies - Space Exploration Technologies, Sierra Nevada Corp., and Blue Origin. It had hoped for enough money to keep at least two and possibly three teams working on spaceships that could ferry astronauts to the space station, a $100 billion laboratory that flies about 240 miles above Earth.

Since the space shuttle program ended this summer, the United States has been dependent on Russia to fly crews to the station, at a cost of more than $50 million per person. NASA had hoped for a U.S. alternative by 2016.

Nado declined to say how the shortfall would affect NASA’s spending on space taxis.

The bill adds $470 million to NASA’s budget to cover costs of terminating a pension fund for workers who were employed by prime shuttle contractor United Space Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corp.

Editing by Paul Simao