NASA Budget Brightens Solar Missions

This year, for a change, NASA gets to share in the budget wealth. The White House request for a $435 million increase, to $14.03 billion in 2001, marks the first time the Clinton Administration has given the space agency a significant raise.

Nearly half the boost--$206 million--would augment the current $2.2 billion for space science projects, including Mars exploration and a bevy of small missions. The centerpiece is a $20 million down payment on "Living with a Star," a sun research program that aims to use a flotilla of spacecraft to track solar storms and solar mass ejections, which can interfere with communications and electric power grids. Some of the satellites would unfurl solar sails, using the solar wind for propulsion rather than chemical or nuclear sources. NASA space science chief Ed Weiler hopes to receive more than $500 million for the program over the next 5 years.

Mars exploration is set to get a $78 million raise on top of this year's $248 million budget, part of which would build a system of communication satellites that could prevent a repeat of last year's devastating loss of two Mars spacecraft. And Weiler says he is open to a review of the entire Mars effort, including whether it is wise to focus primarily on a mission that would collect and return martian rock samples. "Maybe we shouldn't put all our eggs in that basket," he says.

The agency is setting aside nearly $200 million--a $42 million boost--for the next series of Discovery micromissions chosen through peer review. And it will beef up work on instruments to detect life on other planets and moons. NASA also wants to restart work on missions devoted primarily to pushing technology rather than science. The effort, called "New Millennium," was axed last year by the White House and Congress.

Aside from space science, the other big winner this year is NASA's life science program, which is slated to get a 10% hike to its $275 million budget. The increase will be spread equally between biomedical and microgravity research. Earth science funding, however, would remain roughly flat at $1.4 billion, with the bulk of that money going for the Earth Observing System constellation of satellites.