Boehlert Questions Size of NASA Budget Request

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WASHINGTON — The chairman of the House Science Committee said he is opposed to giving NASA a bigger budget increase than most other federal government agencies this year, even though he is supportive of the space agency’s long-term exploration plans.

“I don’t think NASA should be our top budget priority either in this committee or the Congress,” Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) said Feb. 17 at a House Science Committee hearing on NASA’s budget request for 2006. “That means in a budget as excruciatingly tight as this one, NASA probably should not get as much as the president has proposed.”

President George W. Bush submitted a budget request to Congress Feb. 7 that seeks nearly $16.5 billion for NASA for 2006, a 2.4 percent increase over this year’s budget. While that is not as large an increase as NASA previously had expected, it is a larger percentage gain than the president is seeking for most agencies.

Boehlert also said the House Science Committee will work this year to enact a NASA authorization bill addressing the space exploration vision. He said he hopes to send such a bill to the House floor in time to influence congressional action on NASA’s budget request.

Boehlert said while he personally supports NASA’s space exploration plans, including retiring the shuttle by the end of 2010, moving ahead “prudently but swiftly” with the development of the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) and returning humans to the Moon by 2020, he has many unanswered questions about how NASA plans to proceed in the years ahead.

“They can’t tell us what research will be done aboard the station,” Boehlert said. “They can’t tell us how many more shuttle flights will be scheduled. They can’t tell us how they’re going to get around the Iran Non-Proliferation Act. They can’t tell us how many people the CEV will carry or whether it will go to the space station. They can’t tell us what we might do when we get to the Moon.”

Boehlert said he was not accusing NASA of withholding this information.

“Quite the contrary,” he said. “Top NASA officials have spent countless hours with our staff, giving direct and candid answers to a wide range of questions. But they can’t provide answers that they don’t yet have.”

Boehlert and other lawmakers spent two hours asking NASA officials these and other questions about the space exploration vision, cuts to aeronautics and science programs and the decision to forgo any servicing of the Hubble Space Telescope.

Testifying on behalf of NASA was Fred Gregory, the agency’s deputy administrator who is running the agency until a permanent NASA administrator is nominated by the White House and confirmed by the Senate. Gregory appeared at the hearing with several of NASA’s top managers, including the heads of the agencies four mission directorates.

Gregory said NASA expects to know in April what research it intends to pursue aboard the international space station. Once it has a revised research plan, he said, the agency will be in a better position to determine how many of the currently planned 28 space shuttle flights are necessary to completing and supporting the international space station.

Meanwhile, time is running out on NASA’s agreement with the Russian space agency to keep supplying the three-person Soyuz spacecraft that the space station depends upon for escape in an emergency and, since the February 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident, for routine crew transportation. Russian officials have said they will not permit U.S. astronauts aboard Soyuz beyond 2006 without payment. NASA is currently barred from paying Russia for space station-related goods and hardware because of a 2000 law intended to discourage Russian assistance to Iranian missile programs.

Boehlert said he understands that the White House could send to Congress as soon as March proposed language to amend the Iran Non-Proliferation Act of 2000, adding that any such proposal would face scrutiny from lawmakers.

“The station is a lot less important than non-proliferation is, ” Boehlert said.

Gregory offered Boehlert reassurance that NASA and the administration are aware of the Soyuz situation and are working on a solution.

“The administration is interested in seeking a balanced approach that continues to protect our proliferation goals while advancing potential U.S. cooperation on the U.S. vision for space exploration,” Gregory said. “Such a balanced approach must include the Iran Non-Proliferation Act of 2000, which currently complicates cooperation with Russia on the international space station … the administration looks forward to working with Congress to ensure that the vision for U.S. space exploration is able to succeed while remaining fully consistent with broader U.S. national security and non-proliferation goals.”

Rep. Bart Gordon ( Tenn.), the committee’s senior Democrat, parted ways with Boehlert on the issue of NASA’s requested budget increase — Gordon favors a bigger budget for NASA — but joined Boehlert in pressing Gregory for a date when the administration might put forward a plan for reconciling the need for Soyuz with the Iran Act.

Gordon noted that the final Soyuz Russia is obligated to provide is slated to launch in October and come back to Earth six months later.

Gregory said he couldn’t say precisely what solution the administration will propose or when it will be shared with Congress.

“I will say that it will be sooner rather than later,” Gregory said.