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Senate Panel Okays $17.5 Billion For NASA; Bid For $1 Billion More Readied

By | July 2, 2007

      The Senate Appropriations Committee (SAC) approved almost $17.5 billion for NASA in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2008, and a move to add $1 billion more to make good the expenses of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster is set for later Senate floor action.

      In the bill is $3.9 billion for continued development of the Orion crew exploration vehicle, being developed by Lockheed Martin Corp. [LMT], and the Ares rocket that will propel Orion into space. NASA will choose the contractor for Ares in coming months.

      Orion-Ares, in the Constellation Program, will begin flying by 2015, replacing the space shuttle fleet that is to retire in 2010.

      Meanwhile, the NASA money bill provides $4 billion for space shuttle operations and $2.2 billion to operate the International Space Station. As well, there is $5.66 billion for NASA science programs.

      There also is funding for continued development of the James Webb Space Telescope, and for a space shuttle mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope in September next year.

      And a different section of the overall budget bill provides $1 billion for National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration satellite programs.

      A question now, however, is whether the SAC measure will survive on the Senate floor and in a later conference committee to iron out differences with a House-passed version of the NASA budget, and whether the NASA budget bill then might be vetoed by President Bush because it is in a much larger measure that is billions over Bush’s request.

      “Funding levels in the bills may very well [elicit] vetoes by” Bush, warned Sen. Thad Cochran of Mississippi, ranking Republican on the committee.

      Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), who chairs the SAC commerce, justice, science and related agencies subcommittee with jurisdiction over NASA, noted that the NASA portion of the larger budget bill is only $150 million over the amount requested by Bush.

      Further, she and Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, ranking Republican on the subcommittee, joined Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) in sponsoring an amendment to add $1 billion more to the NASA budget to cover costs of upgrading the space shuttle fleet and offsetting funds lost in other programs to cover expenses of recovering from the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003.

      “There is simply too much pressure on NASA’s budget, now and in the future,” Mikulski said. “The only way to reduce the pressure on the budget, and maintain a balanced space program, is to increase our federal commitment to NASA and our national space program.”

      But Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), the SAC chairman, told her that the $1 billion amount would bust the budget limits that SAC must observe.

      So Mikulski withdrew the amendment, while saying she will offer it again when the NASA budget reaches the Senate floor.

      The NASA budget funds are contained in a sweeping $54.646 billion measure that also funds other federal agencies such as the Commerce Department (including the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) with money for weather satellites) and the Justice Department. Mikulski noted that the larger appropriations bill provides roughly $3 billion more than Bush requested for the agencies. That may make the measure veto-bait, Cochran indicated.

      As well, two amendments that the SAC added to the overall bill are highly controversial, Mikulski noted. They concern information about guns being supplied by federal agents to police departments, and another barring lawsuits against employers that require employees to speak English. It’s unclear whether they will threaten or delay progress of the overall bill, including the NASA funding.

      After the SAC added those provisions to the NASA funding measure, Mikulski — a strong backer of the space agency — said, “I hope these two amendments do not define this bill.” Despite the added language, she said she hopes senators still will support the funding plan on the Senate floor.

      Earlier last week, Mikulski chaired a meeting of the subcommittee where the overall budget bill was written, including the NASA funds portion.

      NASA requires “a balanced space program” and a “balanced space transportation system,” one that will be able to “get us to Mars,” Mikulski said. At the same time, she said there must be sufficient support for space science and aeronautics.

      The overall bill, including the Commerce-NOAA portion, provides $4.2 billion for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, including about $30 million “to restore critical climate sensors to NOAA weather satellites,” she said.

      There has been running controversy as to whether NOAA will have sufficient data from new satellites to both track weather conditions such as hurricanes, and also to track global climate change.

      For example, House lawmakers have expressed concern that removal of some weather and climate sensors from the emergent National Polar-Orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System (NPOESS) could mean NOAA wouldn’t receive data it requires to track weather and climate change.

      Those House lawmakers also expressed fears that NPOESS costs have more than doubled to $12.5 billion, including $11.5 billion for four satellites in 2013 through 2026, plus $1 billion operating costs.

      In commenting on the bipartisan funding bill, Shelby, ranking Republican on the subcommittee, said it is important to move forward with the space shuttle program, where he noted the shuttle fleet is to be retired in 2010, and with assembly of the space station.

      It also is critical to ensure full funding for the lunar orbiter and lunar lander, he said. After the shuttles retire in 2010, there will be a gap of about half a decade before the Constellation Program produces the next- generation Orion-Ares system for space travel. Meanwhile, the United States — the nation that sent a man to the moon — won’t be able to get even one of its astronauts off the ground into low Earth orbit, and instead will have to depend on the kindness of the Russians, or commercial space vehicle developers, to perform that crucial task.

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