Flying high? NASA got initial funding for a trip to Pluto, but earmarks and a tight budget have reduced its ability to plan for these and other long-term missions.

Two Agencies Garner Funding Increases

Both NASA and the National Science Foundation (NSF) won bigger 2002 budgets from Congress last week than the Bush Administration had requested back in April. But only one agency is really happy with the outcome.

NSF was granted a 7.7% increase for its $3.6 billion research account, which, to the agency's delight, more than wipes out a 0.5% cut proposed by the president. Added to Congress's 11% increase for NSF's education programs, the result is a $4.8 billion budget for the fiscal year that began on 1 October. NSF's cross-disciplinary initiatives fared well in its new budget, with information technology and nanotechnology each getting $25 million more than the request, to $297 million and $198 million, respectively. The spending bill also overrode the Administration's desire to block any major new research facilities. Annual stipends for three graduate research and teaching fellowship programs will rise from $18,000 to $21,500 as part of the foundation's campaign to make them more competitive.

"I'm really, really pleased with our numbers for 2002," said a visibly relieved NSF Director Rita Colwell, whose campaign to double the agency's budget in 5 years took a sharp hit when the incoming Bush Administration proposed cutting it instead. One reason for Colwell's pleasure is that in NSF's case, Congress largely avoided the earmarks--pet projects of individual legislators--that are taking a record bite out of NASA's budget.

In NASA's case, a 3.8% increase, to $14.8 billion, does include money to kick off a long-awaited mission to Pluto and boost support for a nascent effort to study the sun. A $30 million payment for a 2006 Pluto mission, though, comes with two caveats: There's no commitment beyond 2002, and the power sources needed for the journey are already spoken for by a later mission to Europa, one of Jupiter's moons. Congress also imposed a $1 billion cap on the cost of that payload.

More troubling to NASA officials is the $532 million allotted to 136 projects tailored to benefit the districts of specific lawmakers. That smorgasbord of pork leaves NASA with a paltry increase of $8 million to spend as it wishes, and little flexibility to cope with a $75 million cut in funding for the international space station. Although this year's science programs won't be affected directly, agency managers say that overseeing the 2002 budget could be a fiscal nightmare for the successor to NASA Administrator Dan Goldin, who steps down this week.

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