NASA budget meets trouble in Congress
By Brian Berger
(SPACE.com) -- NASA's space exploration vision is stalling in the U.S. House of Representatives where key lawmakers say Congress has neither the details nor the dollars needed to fully support U.S. President George W. Bush's 2005 budget request for the agency.
The Republican and Democratic leaders of the House appropriations panel that holds the U.S. space agency's purse strings warned NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe during an April 21 budget hearing that they are unwilling to sign off on NASA's new exploration-driven agenda without more details and debate.
Rep. John Walsh, R-New York, chairman of the House Appropriations Veterans Affairs, Housing and Urban Development and independent agencies subcommittee, told O'Keefe he would give the space exploration vision a fair hearing, but was reluctant to approve the money NASA says it needs to set off in the new direction.
"I cannot commit this Congress and future Congresses to a program that is undefined," Walsh said.
Walsh's Democratic counterpart, Rep. Allan Mollohan of West Virginia, said while he was "conceptually" supportive of NASA's moon and Mars exploration strategy, he does not think Congress should fund what he called "a major overhaul of NASA programs" without Congress first authorizing such changes through separate legislation.
"We are being asked to approve a wholesale reordering of NASA programs by approving a series of 2004 operating plans and then to ratify these changes in your 2005 budget -- all without the benefit of appropriate debate and deliberation and without sufficient budgetary detail or program cost projections," Mollohan said. "You are in effect asking the Appropriations Committee alone to approve and implement in less than a year a proposal that will yield fundamental change in the agency in the next 15 years."
NASA is seeking $16.2 billion for 2005, an $866 million increase over the agency's 2004 budget. O'Keefe said most of the new money would go toward returning its three remaining space shuttles to flight status and getting on with international space station assembly. NASA's new vision calls for completing the space station by 2010 and then retiring the space shuttle so that funding for those two programs can be shifted toward the new exploration goals.
O'Keefe said $374 million of the increase NASA is seeking for 2005 would pay for safety improvements to the shuttle fleet.
While members across the political spectrum have vowed not to shortchange shuttle safety, there is a growing reluctance even among members supportive of NASA to push for the full increase the space agency is seeking.
While O'Keefe was testifying before House appropriators, House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert, R-New York, was telling an industry audience down the hall that NASA was unlikely to get the nearly $900 million raise it wants and that that was probably for the best, all things considered. Boehlert also said that he thought many of the changes NASA wants should be approved through standalone legislation before implicitly endorsed through a spending bill.
Boehlert said given current federal budget deficits and competing spending priorities, NASA's sought 5.6 percent increase does not stand much of a chance in a year when total non-defense discretionary spending is not likely to increase by more than a half percent.
"In such a budget, should NASA receive almost a 6 percent increase? Is it the highest domestic spending priority? I don't think so, and I doubt my colleagues will either," Boehlert said.
Boehlert was careful to emphasize that he supports the "broad outlines" of the space exploration vision President Bush laid out January 14, but said he favors a go-slow approach while NASA clarifies some of the details of the new agenda.
For example, Boehlert said he questions how realistic it is for NASA to expect to finish the space station by 2010 given that agency officials estimate that doing so will take 25-30 flights and the shuttle is not expected to resume flying again until March.
"NASA has indicated that the assumption is that five flights will go up each year," he said. "That's more than members of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board have said is prudent; some of them have suggested a limit of four with existing resources. And, of course, the schedule assumes that every flight will go off without a hitch -- hardly our most recent experience."
Boehlert also expressed concern that the exploration-driven agenda would cut into Earth science and aeronautics spending. In particular, he said the Earth science cuts contained in NASA's 2005 spending plan would hinder climate change research, a stated White House priority.
"Do I think that it's more important to know more about the Earth than it is to know more about Mars? I do, and I don't think it's a close question."
Boehlert also said he wants to see Earth science remain at NASA, not transferred to another federal agency such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
"The U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy just this week recommended a partial transfer, and the president's commission on space exploration, headed by former Air Force Secretary Pete Aldridge, is also reportedly considering such an idea," Boehlert said. "I'm skeptical of such moves for a number of reasons, but, in any event, such a move wouldn't necessarily free up funds for space exploration. The assumption behind such recommendations is always that the money should be transferred along with the program, so NASA would actually have less of a 'piggy bank' for exploration after such a transfer occurred."
Boehlert also said Congress is unlikely to take up the NASA spending bill before the presidential and congressional elections in November, meaning NASA -- and many other federal agencies -- will be funded at 2004 levels for some months. Under such so-called continuing resolutions, federal agencies are typically not permitted to begin new programs.
Echoing Mollohan, Boehlert said a NASA authorization bill addressing the changes the space agency wants should be a legislative priority for both the House and Senate. He said he intends to introduce such a bill by July 4 with a goal of getting it through the House in September. His counterpart in the Senate, Sen. John McCain, R.-Arizona, is also working on a NASA authorization bill.
Congress last approved a NASA authorization bill in 2000. That effort took 18 months from introduction to final passage.
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