WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON - NASA's new budget plans call for spending $6.6 billion during the next five years on the spacecraft that is supposed to take Americans back to the moon and beyond, agency chief Sean O'Keefe said yesterday.
Speaking to reporters about the agenda President Bush outlined for the space program last week, O'Keefe said that more details will be released when the agency's $16.2 billion request for the 2005 budget year is released Feb. 2. But he cautioned that not all of the questions swirling around the proposal will be answered.
O'Keefe said he understands the clamoring for a long-term price tag for the initiative, which would involve manned missions as well as robotic probes during the next few decades. But there are too many unknowns to pin down many specifics, he said.
"This is directed to make sure that a series of off-ramps can be taken, or a series of accelerations can be taken," he said. "Right now, so much of this depends on our capability to build an exploration vehicle that can do the kinds of things we're looking at in the time frame we're looking at."
In his Jan. 14 speech, Bush called for $1 billion in new spending for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration during the next five years, and told the agency to come up with another $11 billion in that time from existing spending plans. Critics immediately seized on the lack of detail in Bush's plan, saying even an extra $1 billion might be too much to spend in the country's current fiscal situation and openly wondering how much the program will cost over the long term.
O'Keefe said yesterday that the $11 billion figure is roughly equivalent to projected increases that were built into last year's five-year budget forecast for the agency.
The $16.2 billion request for 2005 represents an almost $800 million increase over the 2004 request, which was not quite $15.5 billion. NASA's budget, under the plan, would increase just less than 5 percent in 2006 and 2007, then by about 1.5 percent in 2008, O'Keefe said.
Without the Bush plan, he said, the agency faced getting none of that money and being saddled with a flat $15.5 billion annual budget for several years.
The $6.6 billion for the "crew exploration vehicle," which has a name but does not yet exist, is coming from money NASA had planned to spend on the so-called orbital space plane project and additional efforts to develop other spacecraft. Both programs have been folded into the CEV project, he said.
NASA is just beginning to examine what the proposed vehicle will need to do, O'Keefe said. What it might look like, or whether it will be able to fly to the international space station, are decisions that won't be made for some time.
The president's plan calls for the CEV to make its first unmanned test flight in 2008 and to head for the moon between 2015 and 2020. The aging space shuttle - and its annual costs of more than $4 billion - would be retired in 2010, after completing the 25 to 30 flights needed to finish the space station.
O'Keefe said the agency is just beginning to embrace the "liberating" idea of pushing beyond low Earth orbit, and that he is encouraging managers and planners to consider every possibility before settling on any design or timetable.
The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.