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Mikulski To Seek $200 Million For NASA In Supplemental Funding Bill; Another $1 Billion In Regular Budget

By | May 12, 2008

      Nelson Urges $2 Billion Extra For NASA Spread Over Two Years: Fiscal 2009, 2010

      NASA Struggling With Far More Missions Than Weak Funding Will Support: Experts

      As senators overseeing NASA authorizations for space exploration programs heard that the space agency is hopelessly underfunded in view of missions it must undertake, needing $1 billion to $2 billion in added funds, another senator chairing appropriations work for NASA moved to provide an initial $200 million extra for the agency.

      Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee commerce, justice, science subcommittee, said she will seek $200 million extra for NASA in the pending emergency wartime supplemental funding bill.

      This would be in addition to the $1 billion plus-up she will attempt to win for NASA this year, in an appropriations bill for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2009. She almost secured the $1 billion for NASA last year in a fiscal 2008 funding measure, piloting the extra shot of funds through her subcommittee, the full Senate Appropriations Committee and through Senate floor action. However, the $1 billion extra didn’t survive in a House-Senate conference committee.

      It’s only right that NASA receives the total $1.2 billion of increased funding, according to the feisty senator from East Baltimore.

      NASA has spent a whopping $2.7 billion trying to fix the space shuttle fleet after the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster, and Congress hasn’t reimbursed the agency for that cost, she noted.

      Instead, NASA has had to eat the costs by taking money out of other programs, short-changing them. NASA was forced to rob Peter to pay Paul.

      So Mikulski is adding $200 million to the emergency supplemental budget bill as a start toward covering NASA safety-program expenses and restoring cuts made to science, aeronautics and exploration programs.

      "NASA was hit with a terrible tragedy with the loss of Columbia," Mikulski said. "The agency was never fully reimbursed and was forced to make dramatic cuts to other programs. I am committed to restoring this agency’s budget to ensure the continued safety of our astronauts, and to supporting the critical programs that are the hallmarks of their success."

      The precise same view was voiced separately by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee space, aeronautics and related sciences subcommittee, the NASA authorization panel.

      He too lamented the expenses for which NASA never was reimbursed, and said Congress should reimburse NASA at least $1 billion for those outlays, or better yet should provide $1 billion extra in fiscal 2009 and another $1 billion in fiscal 2010.

      Nelson chaired a hearing in which expert after expert said NASA is being given far too little money to execute missions assigned to it.

      "NASA is in trouble," Nelson said. "This little agency has been asked to do too much with too little" funding.

      Nelson said he wishes President Bush, having four years ago enunciated his vision for manned space exploration missions to the moon, Mars and beyond, also would have provided the needed funding for those efforts.

      "A vision … with no money is a pipe dream, and the vision does not come into reality," Nelson observed.

      Instead, Nelson noted, space shuttle missions are being cut off and the shuttles retired in 2010, so total NASA funding doesn’t have to be increased to pay for the Constellation Program developing the next-generation Orion-Ares spacecraft system. "NASA doesn’t have enough money to do both" continued shuttle missions and pay for developing the new spaceship and rocket, Nelson said ruefully.

      That will result in the United States having no spaceship for manned missions from the retirement of the shuttles in 2010 until the first Orion-Ares manned flight in 2015, a half decade gap where U.S. prestige and leadership will fade, even as China and other nations advance aggressive space programs. "We cannot even get to the space station on an American vehicle" during that gap, Nelson lamented, even though $75 billion of the $100 billion needed to build the International Space Station came from the U.S. government.

      Nelson pledged he will work to narrow that five-year gap to three years.

      That lack of a U.S. spaceship means NASA will be dependent upon Russia to fly U.S. astronauts to space, and "who knows what [newly installed Russian President Dmitry] Medvedev and [outgoing Russian President Vladimir] Putin will charge us" for trips on Soyuz spacecraft? Nelson said. Putin now is the Russian prime minister, and is thought to still hold immense power. (Nelson termed Putin "the next czar.")

      With Bush in the waning months of his eight years in office, Nelson said he will "ask the new president [who will be elected this November] to fund all that [NASA] is being asked to do."

      Safety Woes, Second-Rate Status

      The nickel-dime-ing of the only space agency to send men to the moon means past glories may fade into future ugliness, Nelson warned. Without sufficient dollars, death and disrespect loom in a changed world.

      "NASA has to do too many things with too few resources," he said. "Either we’re going to have another accident" with astronaut fatalities, "or we’re going to see ourselves overtaken by other countries. And it could be the Chinese" who will eclipse the United States in the high frontier. What a way to celebrate the half-century anniversary of the U.S. space program.

      "No one wants America to be a second-rate nation in space," he said. But the United States was just that when the Russians launched the first vehicle into orbit, the Sputnik satellite, and Americans rallied to take that lead away from Moscow only when "we decided to overcome" the lead of the other superpower.

      To help NASA rebound and recover, it needs "to come up with 1 billion or 2 billion additional dollars," said Frederick A. Tarantino, CEO and president of the Universities Space Research Association, a group of schools involved in the space program.

      Funding is required to shrink that half-decade disappearance of the U.S. manned transportation program. "If that gap is too large," NASA and the space industry will lose too many experienced, top-quality people, Tarantino warned.

      Gene Kranz Views NASA: Faded Glory

      The hair in his trademark crew cut is white now, and he’s old enough to qualify for Social Security. But the memories he has give him a great view of where American space efforts have been … and where they’re headed. He watched the Russians launch Sputnik. He watched the United States press forward with the Mercury program and the Gemini program. And he was the NASA flight director during many missions, including one where he got the Apollo 13 crew safely back to its home planet after an explosion on the way to the moon.

      Gene Kranz has seen the struggle of early U.S. space program days, the heady heights of moon missions, the methodical assembly of the space station, and now the approaching void of years without any astronauts launching into space. He chronicled much of the history of America in space, and his own life as well, in his book, "Failure is Not an Option."

      He appeared before the subcommittee to recall the iconic names — pioneering astronaut John Glenn, President John F. Kennedy and his clarion call to go to the moon, Skylab and more — and the low spots such as the emptiness and lack of purpose after the Apollo missions ended, and the explosions that destroyed Space Shuttle Challenger.

      Now, those days of struggle and difficulties overcome, triumph and glory, are distant.

      "I am very concerned [about] the leadership of our country, not only in space but in technology [and innovation] that drives the country," Kranz told Nelson.

      It’s not just that NASA is facing years of no accomplishment in manned space flight, it’s also that America is losing the payoffs, the technological bonanzas that its space program for decades has bequeathed to its economy, the largest on the planet.

      "We’re in great danger of losing the ability to keep this economy running at full throttle," Kranz said, as a lack of alternative energy technologies has helped to ensure oil prices shoot to the stratosphere, inflation accelerates, interest rates climb, the housing market collapses and fearful consumers begin pulling back from trips to stores and restaurants.

      To be sure, Kranz endorses the vision for space exploration, the plan to go to the moon, Mars and beyond. He wants it to succeed.

      "This is a very well-seasoned plan," Kranz said, urging Congress "to stay the course. The basic plan is very sound, very well founded." Tarantino, too, urged lawmakers to reauthorize NASA and to endorse the vision for space exploration.

      And Kranz lavishly praised the man leading that effort, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin.

      Kranz said Griffin can make difficult go-no go decisions, and is the right man at the right time to be leading NASA.

      But nothing happens without money, Kranz said. Therefore, "it is time for NASA to recognize there is no free ride" into space, the moon and the solar system.

      And for Congress to vote the funds required for bold space initiatives, public support must be rallied, Kranz advised.

      The space agency needs "grass roots support," and that means "it is time for NASA to get off its duff" and reach out to citizens groups, "Rotary meetings," and more to help fire the public imagination about the wonders of the final frontier.

      Nelson firmly agreed, saying Kranz’s appeal "is as well said as anything," and the former flight director’s prescriptions are vitally needed "in order for America to return to the glory days."

      Kranz’s call to action was buttressed by Dr. Joan Johnson-Freese, chairman of the National Security Division in the U.S. Naval War College at Newport, R.I., who testified speaking for herself, not the school.

      "It is a tragedy that the United States has turned away" from great achievements in space, she said. Globally, there is emerging an impression that "the U.S. space effort is being bested by China."

      The question now for U.S. decision makers, she said: "Will we willingly abrogate that role to others? America needs to be seen as the leader," she said, and there is no better way to achieve that status than to lead in space.

      She also cautioned that as long as the gap runs between the shuttle program and Orion-Ares, the United States will be dependent upon the Russians and their Soyuz spaceships for transport to the space station, and that will give the Russians leverage that Moscow "very probably" won’t hesitate to use against the United States in non-space-related areas. "They will leverage this any way they can," she predicted.

      Retired Air Force Maj. Gen. Robert Dickman, executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, said it is time to ask "whether we’re willing to invest in our own future."

      A space program proponent laid out a multi-point proposal to revive the U.S. space program. George T. Whitesides, executive director of the National Space Society, urged Congress to:

      • Reauthorize NASA and the space program.
      • Maintain the space industrial base, a $250 billion global industry and one of the few where the United States isn’t running a trade deficit. NASA should use emergent commercial space transportation services wherever feasible, especially for routine space station servicing missions, leaving NASA to launch missions of important exploration on the high frontier. (Dickman put it differently, saying Orion-Ares is right for lunar exploration, but not right for missions to low Earth orbit.)
      • Back new forms of energy production, such as space solar power that directs unlimited energy from the sun down to Earth.
      • Forge new alliances with allies and competitors.
      • Cut the human space flight gap. "We cannot outsource our manned space flight needs" to Russia or other nations.
      • Spur students to take science, technology, engineering and math courses needed if the United States is to have the brainpower it requires for the space sector in coming decades.

      Nelson underscored that the United States, on a comparable basis, spent vastly more on space programs in the early years of NASA, compared to the 0.6 percent of the federal discretionary budget being spent today.

      If the United States had tried to start its space program half a century ago with 0.6 percent of the federal discretionary spending budget, what would have happened? Nelson asked.

      "We would have been stuck in the Gemini program," and never would have made it to the moon, Kranz said. "We would have seen the Soviets flying to the moon" instead.

      Today, NASA is coasting toward having no manned space flight program, and the Chinese are moving forward with a space program that has involved only two manned missions in five years, yet China is perceived globally to be the leader in space, Johnson-Freese noted. "That is wrong," but that is a fact, she said.

      Nelson concluded that there was great unanimity among the expert witnesses that NASA is being pressed to do too much with too few dollars, and said that might be corrected with $1 billion extra funding in fiscal 2009 and another $1 billion in 2010.

      Unfortunately, there were no other senators present to hear him urge that step.

      Aside from a brief appearance by Sen. David Vitter (R-La.), who asked a few questions and left, Nelson was alone on the dais for the entire hearing.

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