The plan to return astronauts to the Moon by 2020 will continue, despite calls for the agency to go to asteroids or Mars (Illustration: NASA)
NASA will stay on track to return humans to the Moon by 2020, according to an overview of President Obama's 2010 budget request released on Thursday.
But the budget request backs a plan developed under the Bush administration to retire the space shuttle by 2010 and develop a system to return humans to the Moon by 2020.
However, the document does not specify whether the Moon return will be accomplished by NASA's Constellation programme, which aims to build a crew capsule called Orion and rockets called Ares to replace the shuttle.
'Proceed as you were'
NASA's former chief, Mike Griffin, was a staunch supporter of the Constellation programme, but he resigned in January and his successor has not yet been named.
"The budget doesn't say a whole lot about any specific system," says John Logsdon, a space policy analyst at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, DC. "I wouldn't interpret the absence of the words 'Constellation', 'Ares', and 'Orion' one way or another. That's really up to the the new management team, when it gets there."
Indeed, NASA is planning to stay the course - at least for now. "The direction we have at the current time is, 'Proceed as you were,'" says agency spokesperson Stephanie Schierholz.
Under the proposed budget, the agency would receive $18.7 billion in 2010. Combined with $1 billion in funding provided in an economic stimulus package signed into law last week, NASA would get $2.4 billion more than it did in 2008.
"It's a nice number," Logsdon told New Scientist. "Between the proposed increase and the stimulus package, NASA's $2.4 billion [would leave it] better off than it was last year."
The budget would also likely be a boost over 2009 funding levels. The agency's 2009 budget has not yet been settled. NASA has been operating at 2008 funding levels under a continuing resolution since October 2008.
But on Wednesday, the US House of Representatives passed an omnibus bill to fund NASA for 2009. It calls for a $360 million increase in the agency's human exploration budget, which includes $2.9 billion for the Constellation programme. NASA's science budget would decline $200 million from 2008 levels. The US Senate is now considering the bill.
Climate change research and monitoring tops the list of funding highlights in the overview of NASA's budget request, but the budget for specific agency programmes is not included. A detailed budget request is not expected before April.