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Key Senate Panel Adds $1 Billion To NASA Budget Bill

By | July 17, 2006

      The Senate Appropriations Committee (SAC) approved an amendment adding $1 billion to the NASA appropriations bill for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2007.

      That extra funding passed over opposition from some senators on the SAC, including Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), former chairman of the Senate Budget Committee, who said the action made for poor federal budget policy.

      But Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), ranking Democrat on the SAC science and space subcommittee, said the money is needed to help NASA return its space shuttles fleet to flight, after the Feb. 1, 2003, disaster in which the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated in a flaming streak across the sky on re-entry.

      Mikulski, who co-sponsored the bi-partisan amendment with subcommittee Chairman Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), said there is precedent for such return-to-flight funding, which NASA received after the Space Shuttle Challenger launch disaster Jan. 28, 1986.

      Mikulski’s state of Maryland includes the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, while Hutchison’s state of Texas includes the Johnson Space Center.

      Hutchison and Mikulski, joined by other co-sponsors, also picked up support at a SAC budget-writing session from the ranking Democrat on the full committee, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, the most senior member of the Senate.

      Byrd said that as NASA has struggled to find funds to return to shuttle flights, it has been forced to raid various non-flight programs, which Byrd termed a “rob Peter to pay Paul scheme.”

      NASA performed exhaustive tests to determine why foam insulation ripped off the Columbia external fuel tank during launch, fatally damaging the orbiter vehicle.

      That led to changes in the Space Shuttle Discovery fuel tank that yielded a flawless, and safe, launch last week on July 4. The shuttle mission to the International Space Station, now ongoing, thus far has been smooth, on schedule, and extended a day to a total 13 days.

      Mikulski said it is time to “pay the bill to return to flight” after the Columbia disaster. To fix the shuttle problems, “NASA has paid a significant price in other programs,” she said. “We want our astronauts up there,” but as well, NASA shouldn’t see its other programs shredded financially.

      Hutchison said NASA has many important programs other than the shuttle flights, terming NASA “one of the key educational and research agencies” performing experiments in microgravity in orbit that can’t be performed on Earth because of its gravitational pull.

      Mikulski added that John Glenn and Jake Garn, both former members of the Senate and both former astronauts, “support this amendment.”

      Domenici termed the amendment “just wasteful.” But when it went to a voice vote of the SAC members, although some no votes were heard, SAC Chairman Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) said that in his opinion, the ayes had it, and the amendment passed.

      But now the question will be whether the $1 billion increase in NASA funding survives on the Senate floor, and in later House-Senate conference to resolve differences with the House-passed version of the bill that doesn’t include the funds.

      “These amounts,” referring to funds in the appropriations bill for science programs and the departments of Commerce, Justice and State, “are likely to be reduced substantially when we go to conference with the other chamber,” Byrd warned.

      The Main Bill

      That $1 billion amendment was added to an overall fiscal 2007 NASA appropriations bill totaling $16.757 billion, up from $16.247 billion in the current fiscal 2006. The House envisions $16.707 billion in fiscal 2007.

      Longer term, the SAC report on the bill warns that NASA faces serious underfunding of its space programs.

      While President Bush has laid out an ambitious multi-decade vision of manned space flights returning to the moon, then voyaging to Mars, and finally exploring yet more distant points in the solar system, SAC said the money isn’t likely to be there to make the dream a reality.

      The Bush vision “potential costs are substantial and will likely be very difficult to maintain at the current estimated funding levels,” the appropriators wrote. The government faces giant budget deficits, a turnaround from the record budget surpluses under President Clinton, and the red ink is constraining spending by many government programs.

      Accordingly, the SAC report worries that NASA will fund the manned space flight programs by raiding other programs, just as the agency did in funding the shuttle recovery program.

      “The Committee is concerned that NASA will neglect areas that only tangentially benefit or do not fit within, the proposed exploration vision,” the report stated. The administration fiscal 2007 budget request for NASA alreadystarted down that slippery path, the SAC report alleged.

      Bush’s fiscal 2007 federal government budget proposal to Congress last winter “proposes to defer or cancel existing programs and infrastructure that are not directly supportive of the explorative vision” that Bush unveiled, the SAC report asserts.

      Those other programs are being “sacrificed to provide the near-term budgetary resources necessary to facilitate the implementation of the moon/Mars vision.” And that means a budget crunch is looming.

      “Counterbalancing future priorities places existing research and expertise in jeopardy and risks squandering significant federal investments that may be essential to the proposed explorations vision,” the SAC stated.

      NASA thus is harming science programs, the SAC concluded. The Senate panel also warned that it is losing patience with NASA juggling funds among various budgets, wishing to exert more congressional oversight on the shifts.

      Also in the bill is $10.489 billion for science, aeronautics and exploration; $5.581 billion for the National Science Foundation; $4.331 billion for research and related activities; and other amounts for various programs.

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