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NASA has been hacking away at its budget for environmental research projects in a recent round of book balancing, but says its Shuttle programme is still on track.

The agency has cancelled at least two satellite research programmes to free up cash for manned space missions, according to reports, and is delaying others.

A $200m mission designed to measure the amount of moisture in the soil has been scrapped, as has the launch of the $100m The Deep Space Climate Observatory, even though it has already been built. Both projects would have provided data for scientists trying to understand the mechanisms involved in climate change.

According the The Boston Globe NASA is also planning to postpone weather monitoring missions slated for 2007, which would also have helped refine climate models.

The cuts have meant job losses as well, with between 20 and 30 staff at the Utah State University's Space Dynamics Laboratory looking forward to their pink slips next month. The university says it has taken a 40 per cent budget cut in NASA's Wide-field Infrared Survey Explorer program, but that the work will continue despite the head count reduction.

Although the Earth science missions have taken a battering, money is still available for manned space missions. NASA said it remains committed to a July launch for the newly refurbished Discovery Shuttle, in spite of lingering safety concerns.

The main alteration to the craft is the removal of the Protuberance Air Load ramp. This is the area on the external tank that lost chunks of foam during both the ill-fated Columbia flight in 2003, and the more recent Return to Flight mission undertaken by discovery last year.

NASA says its tests have shown the shuttle can fly safely without the ramp, which covers wiring and pressurisation lines on the external fuel tank.

It says removing the ramp will not eliminate the risk of more foam chunks falling off during the launch. The agency expects any foam debris to be smaller than the chunk that fatally wounded Columbia, but says it still has a lot to learn about the physics of the foam. ®

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