Key Lawmaker: NASA Budget Too Low, Major Increases May Have To Wait

By | March 10, 2008 | Satellite News Feed

Bipartisan Support In Congress For Bigger NASA Budget, But Bush May Again Thwart That Move This Year

So A Possibility Is Using Continuing Budget Resolution Through Next January, Then Sending Increased Fiscal 2009 NASA Budget To Newly-Elected President Sometime Early Next Year

House appropriations lawmakers will increase the total $17.6 billion NASA budget that President Bush requested for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2009, a congressional chairman said after leading a marathon two-day hearing that uncovered myriad funding shortfalls and crunches in space agency spending plans.

"There is a lot of support … for additional funding," Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (D-W.Va.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee commerce, justice, science and related agencies subcommittee, told Space & Missile Defense Report in an interview.

We asked him whether Congress will add substantially to the NASA fiscal 2009 budget request.

"I anticipate … hope that we will get a budget resolution which provides discretionary spending above the president’s request," which would permit the panel "to augment NASA’s funding," Mollohan replied.

He said he can’t say now precisely how much that plus-up will amount to, becauser "it depends on a lot of things." Certainly, however, the lawmakers are determined to raise the total NASA budget as much as they are able, he said.

"We’re certainly receptive to doing that, to the extent possible," Mollohan said.

And a willingness on the House side to bolster the NASA budget is likely to be greeted with a similar stance on the Senate side, so that a higher budget amount can likely emerge from a House-Senate conference on the NASA financing bill, he said.

Mollohan noted that his counterpart on the other side of Capitol Hill, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), has been a strong fighter for NASA programs. She chairs the Appropriations Committee commerce, justice, science and related agencies subcommittee, and last year came close to winning an extra $1 billion for NASA.

Also, many lawmakers of both parties, in both authorizing and appropriating committees, on both sides of Capitol Hill have decided that the NASA budget is underpowered. (Please see Space & Missile Defense Report, Monday, Feb. 18, 2008.)

So Congress may well increase NASA fiscal 2009 appropriations by a substantial amount.

But the story doesn’t end there, Mollohan indicated. Then comes the question of whether Bush will go to the mat and vow to veto any overall spending measure containing increased funds for NASA.

And there, the outlook isn’t so optimistic, he said.

Bush may oppose with a veto threat any move for a major increase in the $17.6 billion budget request. "The question is, can we keep that funding [in] passing a conference report" on the NASA budget bill "that goes to the president," Mollohan said. And that may be a stumbling block for any increased NASA funding.

"Do you want to send the president a bill that he swears to veto?" Mollohan asked, or would it be better to let the NASA budget lie idle until next year?

While there is broad bipartisan support in Congress for increasing total NASA funding, that may have to wait until next year, after President Bush leaves office, Mollohan explained.

Mollohan noted that the appropriating panel last year pushed an extra $300 million into the NASA fiscal 2008 budget on the House side, which became part of a congressionally authored $22 billion overall federal budget increase in government-wide discretionary spending. But Bush then opposed that, and the $22 billion "disappeared," including the $300 million for NASA.

"The president in a very stubborn way refused to negotiate with the Congress," Mollohan recalled.

And this year might see the same scenario, with Congress deciding to increase the Bush proposal for fiscal 2009 NASA spending — "plus it up" — only to see Bush veto the measure, Mollohan said.

To avoid that frustrating outcome, Mollohan said Congress may do a Texas two-step around Bush’s opposition.

First, Congress may move to pass a continuing resolution next fall to continue NASA funding at a flat level after the new fiscal year starts Oct. 1, and meanwhile let the regular fiscal 2009 NASA budget lie for the time being.

Then, because Bush can’t constitutionally succeed himself, he certainly will be replaced by a newly-elected president early next year, a White House occupant who might well be more kindly disposed to resolving critical NASA funding shortfalls, Mollohan indicated.

Currently, the three leading candidates for president have taken varying stands on the space program.

The presumptive Republican nominee is Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who in his campaign Web site is portrayed as "a strong supporter of NASA and the space program." However, the Web site notes that he has backed funding "consistent with the president’s vision for the space program," leaving unclear how he might react to a higher-than-requested level of space agency funding. "He will continue his strong support" for NASA, the Web site states.

McCain’s Web site terms him in favor of "a return of astronauts to the moon in preparation for a manned mission to Mars," so he appears to side with the administration position of wishing to go back to the moon first, and then later voyaging on to Mars, rather than going directly to Mars as some critics urge.

McCain is a longtime member, and a former chairman, of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee that has authorizing jurisdiction over NASA.

One leading candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination is Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York. She favors "a balanced strategy of robust human spaceflight, expanded robotic spaceflight, and enhanced space science activities," according to her campaign Web site.

In checking the Web site of another strong Democratic presidential contender, Sen. Barak Obama of Illinois, a search of his Web site technology issues section found no mention of space programs.

However, it does call for the government to spur innovation and new technology.

Obama’s Web site observes that "it often has been federally-supported basic research that has generated the innovation to create markets and drive economic growth. For example, one recent report demonstrated how federally supported research in fiber optics and lasers helped spur the telecommunications revolution."

Griffin Outlines Budget Request

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin argued during the exhaustive two-day House subcommittee hearing that the space agency "is already being well treated in the [Bush] administration’s budget," given that it would permit NASA to keep pace with inflation, unlike some agencies throughout government that are seeing actual cuts in the numbers of dollars they would receive in fiscal 2009, compared to fiscal 2008.

At the same time, Griffin acknowledged that appropriators in Congress have a right to exercise oversight of his agency, and thus they must decide whether proposed funding levels for NASA would be inadequate to continue some programs.

"It is the judgment of the Congress as to whether it is adequate," he said.

At another point, Griffin argued that what NASA needs most is consistency and predictability that it can rely on, year after year, rather than volatile swings, peaks and valleys, in funding levels.

And it’s always something, in the NASA fiscal picture.

Griffin recalled that five years ago NASA was wrestling with the financial fallout and other developments after the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, in which the ship and crew were lost during reentry Feb. 1, 2003. Four years ago, he continued, it was the Columbia accident investigation board. Three years ago Griffin took office and began assessing what the agency required. Two years ago there was a new civil space agenda, and a push to finish the International Space Station and retire the space shuttle fleet in 2010. And a year ago NASA had to deal with the effects of getting a continuing budget resolution, instead of an expected regular budget with increased appropriations. And now, there is an impending election that will choose a new White House occupant, meaning there will be a transition to a new administration.

"The greatest need at NASA is stability," Griffin stated, and "a constancy of purpose."

Asked whether the fiscal 2009 NASA budget plan is inadequate to support, well, all the different programs in NASA, Griffin replied, "The president’s budget is adequate for the goals the president has asked us to accomplish."

But some lawmakers questioned whether that is true, or whether funds will turn out to be inadequate, as well as asking whether NASA is being asked to accomplish what a first- rank space power should.

For example, Mollohan, as subcommittee chairman, pointed out that NASA faces competition from other nations for space supremacy. And the United States, when it retires the space shuttle in 2010, will confront a half-decade gap when it won’t be able to take even one of its astronauts as far as low Earth orbit, much less to the moon, until the next- generation Orion-Ares spaceship begins flying in 2015.

China: Threat To Leadership

Griffin acknowledged that there exists "a threat to our leadership" in space, saying that U.S. leadership in the cosmos, for many in the population, "defines what it means to be an American."

But that is based on accomplishments in the past: Americans are the only ones to have gone to the moon. The United States is the lead nation in building the International Space Station, and the nation that built the peerless Hubble Space Telescope.

Now flash forward to 2010, and the United States will be dependent upon a sometimes hostile Russia for transport to the space station.

With no space transportation capability, will other nations view the United States as a leader, and wish to partner with Americans on international space ventures? Griffin asked.

"They will not want to partner with us if we are not there," he said.

The ranking Republican on the subcommittee voiced worries that China may eclipse the United States in space. Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen of New Jersey asked whether China, which in the next decade will send taikonauts to the moon, is leapfrogging ahead of the United States.

"I’m very impressed with what the Chinese are accomplishing," Griffin said.

As far as Beijing being able to send travelers to the moon, "I certainly believe that they can if they want to," he added, "late in the next decade."

He noted that the third Chinese orbital flight "will include a crew of three," a feat that took NASA many more flights in the early days of the space program. And China is working on developing a Long March 5 rocket that can hoist 25 metric tons to orbit, by 2013.

"I admire their program," he said, and its way of moving ahead "step by logical step, the way they do everything else."

Whether China’s rapid advancements in space are a matter for concern is "a strategic matter for a great nation" such as the United States, he said. "I do not see it as a strategic threat except for our image in the world."

If the mantle of leadership is ripped away from the United States, that could have "ramifications in the world of economics and soft power," Griffin said.

"And military power?" Frelinghuysen asked.

"And military power," Griffin said.

China is estimated to aim for placing its taikonauts on the moon before the end of the next decade, possibly beating U.S. astronauts back to the lunar surface. And that may be true even if there is no delay in NASA and its contractors developing the next-generation Orion-Ares spaceship.

One lawmaker expressed interest in "lunar property rights," noting that the moon is rich in minerals.

Meanwhile, in the first half of that next decade, NASA will have to hitch rides with the Russians to take astronauts to and from the space station. "We will continue to be dependent on the Soyuz system," Griffin said, repeating earlier statements that a new contract with Russia to purchase Soyuz flights must be executed by next year to purchase Soyuz flights years hence.

$3.2 Billion Short?

Another Republican on the panel, Rep. John A. Culberson of Texas, also voiced concerns that the NASA budget leaves the agency underfunded in some areas. At one point, he mentioned a possibility that annual budgets have left NASA short by $3.2 billion.

To cite one, Culberson noted that Congress failed to pass the $1 billion that Mikulski and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) pushed last year to reimburse NASA for costs of losing Space Shuttle Columbia.

"We have never given you the resources" that NASA requires, Culberson observed.

Griffin responded that NASA isn’t buying a new shuttle orbiter vehicle to replace Columbia. At the same time, he agreed that NASA has not been compensated for the $2.7 billion costs it incurred in returning the remaining shuttle fleet to flight after the Columbia disaster.

As well, Culberson noted, NASA also suffered financial losses in damage to the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans, caused by Hurricane Katrina. Components such as the space shuttle external fuel tanks are built at Michoud.

Culberson and Griffin both noted that the damage at Michoud would have been far worse had contractor personnel not remained there in the face of the mega-story to keep pumps running to avert huge flooding and damage. "Michoud is right next to the water, surrounded by levies, and water topped the levies," Griffin noted. Were it not for those workers, "we would not be flying the space shuttle today, and we would not be completing the space station," he added.

Griffin also was asked about several programs that have encountered budget overruns and/or schedule slippages:

  • Glory. This satellite is to collect data on aerosols, and also on solar irradiance. Cost overruns and delays have beset the project. Some delay ensued when a contractor moved part of a workforce from one location to another. "It is going well," and "meeting its goals" now, Griffin said, though progress is "slower than expected." Some delay stemmed from a sensor being delivered late.
  • VIIRS on NPOESS. While the VIIRS segment is a Department of Defense project, Griffin voiced unhappiness with schedule delays and technical problems. "We can’t keep having these problems," he said. VIIRS (Visible Infrared Imager/Radiometer Suite) is to measure ocean color, as a payload on the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System, an Earth-scanning satellite.
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