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Tuesday, 4 February, 2003, 12:32 GMT
Were budget cuts to blame?
Memorial at the Kennedy Space Center
Questions asked about Nasa's budget

As Nasa looks for the cause of the Columbia disaster, experts are asking if budget cuts in space shuttle funding in recent years contributed to the accident.

Over the past decade, Nasa's total budget has declined in real-spending dollars. The budget for the space shuttle has fallen by 40% in real terms since 1990.

Last year, an expert safety panel said that trouble was looming if Nasa's budget was not increased.

Nasa officials point out that while they recognised more money was needed, no space shuttle mission had been compromised on safety.

The decline in the space shuttle's budget mirrors the long-term decline in space funding.

In the 1960s - the time of the Cold War race to the Moon - Nasa got 5% of the federal budget. Today, that is down to less than 1%.

Next year's budget calls for Nasa's funding to rise 3.1% to $15.5bn in 2004, including a 23.9% boost for the shuttle itself to $3.97 billion.

The Columbia disaster puts these plans in doubt as Nasa seeks to determine the cause of the orbiter's loss.

Mushrooming costs

Questions are already being asked about funding for the space shuttle programme, which was cut by 1.9% in the 2003 budget.

SHUTTLE BREAK-UP
Re-entered atmosphere at 12,500 mph (20,000 km/h)
Disintegrated 40 miles (65 kilometres) above the Earth
Debris scattered over Texas and Louisiana
US Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Ted Stevens has said he would look into any additional funding needs Nasa might have in light of the tragedy.

"Clearly the funding for Nasa has been very, very tight," says Rep Steny Hoyer of Maryland. "Hopefully, we will not find that under-funding was the cause of this accident."

Support for increased funding could well grow as Congress weighs information coming in from the probes into last weekend's loss of the space shuttle.

Such an increase could reverse what some analysts have called a period of budgetary benign neglect by previous administrations, made more difficult by the space agency's inability to control mushrooming costs on the International Space Station.

Nasa is requesting $1.7bn for the space station for the next year.

The message that Nasa needs to reform its budget looks likely to be heeded by Sean O'Keefe, Nasa's new administrator, a projects and funding specialist.

Late last year, the White House sent Congress an amendment to the 2003 budget asking for more money to extend the time needed to produce shuttle replacements, and provide the upgrades needed to keep the current shuttle fleet operating as safely as possible.

Nasa's 2004 budget request summarises the situation succinctly: "Past management of shuttle investments suffered from unclear planning and cost overruns."


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