A $1 billion NASA emergency funding supplemental championed by U.S. Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee July 13 as an amendment to the 2007 Commerce, Justice, Science spending bill.
The $1 billion is intended to partially reimburse NASA for the $2.3 billion it has had to spend in response to the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster. The amendment also would provide $40 million to help NASA complete repairs to two Gulf Coast facilities damaged by Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
But objections raised by a powerful veteran lawmaker during the Senate Appropriations Committee’s consideration of the spending bill made clear that ultimate approval of the supplemental funding for NASA is far from assured.
Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) objected to Mikulski and Hutchison’s NASA amendment on the grounds that any funding emergency NASA encountered after the loss of Columbia is now passed.
“To call this an emergency when all we are saying is NASA found a way to get by after it had an accident … and now to say in the process ‘we better go ahead and give them back the money that they would have had to spend on the rest of their programs had they not had the accident’ is just wasteful. And to call it an emergency is a very big stretch of the word,” Domenici said.
“I regret to say I don’t think this ought to become law,” he added. “I know it will pass here today, but it’s got a few more miles down the road to go.”
Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho) also spoke against the amendment before the committee approved it by a voice vote. “Setting something off on the emergency side is not a way we should do business on a regular basis because somebody needs more money,” Craig said, adding that recent better-than-expected news about the U.S. budget deficit “should not give us license to accelerate spending.”
By designating the $1 billion as emergency funding, the committee was able to add the extra NASA money to the spending bill without technically busting the budget cap it imposed on the bill earlier this year.
Hutchison defended the emergency designation as “an innovative approach with precedent,” noting that Congress gave NASA an emergency $2.7 billion after the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger disaster to build another orbiter and make safety improvements across the fleet.
Since Columbia, NASA has received just $100 million from Congress explicitly designated for post-accident expenses. As a result, Mikulski said, NASA has had to “forage for funds” in other program budgets in order to cover the cost of recovery. “NASA has paid a significant price in other programs in order to get the shuttle back up there,” she said.
Sens. Robert Bennett (R-Utah ), Mike DeWine (R-Ohio ), and Mary Landrieu (D-La. ), all of whom have either a NASA facility or a large presence of NASA contractors in their states, signed on as last-minute co-sponsors. The amendment also received the support of Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the chairman of the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice and science subcommittee. Speaking in support of the $1 billion emergency supplemental, Shelby said it is “desperately needed for NASA.”
Independent of the emergency funding, the spending bill would provide $16.757 billion for NASA for 2007. While that is $35 million less than the White House requested for the agency, it is about $48 million more that the House of Representatives included in the NASA spending bill it passed last month.
Roughly one-fourth of the budget plan approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee would go to fully fund NASA’s request for ongoing space shuttle operations next year and the agency’s effort to field its replacement, the Crew Exploration Vehicle.
The bill would also provide the full $121 million NASA requested for the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, a $500 million effort to foster development of commercial services capable of delivering cargo and perhaps even crew to the international space station. NASA’s robotic lunar exploration program would receive $312 million next year under the bill, and the James Webb Space Telescope would also get its full request of $443 million.
While the Senate version of the bill promises to give NASA its full request, if not significantly more, not everything in the bill is likely to please NASA. Further complicating the matter, some of the provisions likely to draw NASA objections were inserted by the agency’s main champion in the Senate, Mikulski.
Mikulski is behind one particularly thorny provision that throws a monkey wrench into NASA’s plan to buy a spacecraft under a firm fixed-price contract to replace by 2011 the old and ailing Landsat 5 and 7 spacecraft. NASA planned to issue a request for proposals this autumn, but the report accompanying the Senate spending bill orders NASA to “suspend any further procurement activity” for now.
In a written statement given to Space News, Mikulski took responsibility for the provision, saying she wants NASA to drop plans to award a firm fixed-price contract for the entire mission, compete the spacecraft bus and instruments separately and keep government employees in charge of spacecraft integration.
“NASA’s current Landsat procurement strategy is fundamentally flawed. It does not guarantee real competition or true government oversight,” she said in the statement. “I want to see more competition in science missions, not less. NASA’s most successful Earth science missions — including Landsat 7, Aqua and Terra — all used a procurement model that fully competed individual segments with NASA serving as project integrator and manager. These missions came in on time, generally on budget and accomplished their scientific objectives. Real competition has always proven to be best value for the taxpayer and for NASA. I want to keep it that way.”
The bill also would provide more than $20 million in additional funding for NASA’s Living with a Star program, a multi-mission effort to study the interaction between Earth and the Sun. Much of the work under the program is being done in Maryland, at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt and Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel.
The report includes a lengthy list of site-specific projects, also known as earmarks, that lawmakers want NASA to fund. But the report — for reasons not immediately clear — assigns no dollar value to any of the more than 70 earmarks.