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Panel: NASA is Underfunded for Mission

WASHINGTON - The U.S. manned space program cannot "continue in any meaningful way" unless the Obama administration ultimately adds $3 billion a year to NASA's budget, according to a panel of space experts convened by the White House.

The Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee released an executive summary Tuesday that presents the administration with a tough choice, say space experts: either funnel huge amounts of extra cash to NASA at a time of growing public concern over federal spending, or let the manned space program wither.

The full report is scheduled to be released later this month.

"I'm very curious about what the administration is going to do with a report like this," said Marcia Smith, a former space expert for the Congressional Research Service and founder of spacepolicyonline.com. The "committee has made a stark case. . . . They're saying it's $3 billion if you want to do almost anything."

The report "certainly puts forward a challenge to the administration," said John Logsdon, a George Washington University space expert. "Symbolically, it's a hard choice in the current economic environment."

The committee wants to see NASA's budget jump from roughly $18 billion to more than $21 billion by 2014. After 2014, the budget would rise a more modest 2.4% every year to account for inflation.

The recommendations of the committee, which is headed by retired aerospace executive Norman Augustine, run contrary to many of President George W. Bush's plans for NASA. The committee wants the White House to rethink everything from Bush's 2010 retirement date for the space shuttle to his goal of sending astronauts back to the moon by 2020.

The committee recommends that the shuttle be allowed to fly into 2011 for safety reasons. It doesn't rule out sustained exploration of the moon but also favors sending astronauts to asteroids and to the moons of Mars.

What really bothered the committee, however, was Obama's plan to slash NASA's moon-exploration budget in the coming years.

The manned space program "appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory," the committee wrote, adding that it had developed two scenarios for NASA that stay within Obama's budget but "neither allows for a viable exploration program."

It's possible that, as the committee suggests, extra money for NASA could come from partnerships with other nations, Smith said. Still, she said, "it would be a difficult sell." Obama must decide whether NASA is important enough to "add this to his list of things he's trying to convince the American people . . . to do."

NASA spokesman Michael Cabbage said NASA would work with the White House "to determine how best to shape the agency's future human space flight efforts."

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