The House Science Committee chairman’s reluctance to issue an up-front endorsement of U.S. President George W. Bush’s proposed 2.4 percent budget increase for NASA in 2006 is understandable. However, the chairman’s stated desire to put the committee’s own stamp on the space agency’s new vision for exploration beyond Earth orbit could be cause for concern.

During the first hearing of the year on NASA’s 2006 budget request Feb. 17, the chairman, Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), certainly reiterated his support for the vision overall and for rapid completion of one of its key elements, the development of a crew exploration vehicle to replace the space shuttle fleet. But he also made it clear that he does not think NASA should “be our top budget priority either in this committee or [in] the Congress.”

That same sentiment was there last year , when members of the House Appropriations Committee cut NASA’s budget request for 2005. That decision was reversed only after House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) worked with the Senate during the budget conference to gain approval of nearly the full amount President Bush had requested .

Rep. Boehlert and his Democratic counterpart, Rep. Bart Gordon ( Tenn.), made it clear during the Feb. 17 hearing that they intend to have a say on the vision this year.

The Congress — both House and Senate — could guarantee the long-term health of NASA by giving the agency’s new vision a bipartisan stamp of approval. They certainly might want to make some changes in priorities as they undertake that task. There is nothing wrong with that — it is the role congressional oversight should play.

The concern is that many members are likely to focus on short-term priorities that preserve the status quo in their states or districts at the expense of the larger vision. And the longer full implementation of that vision is delayed, the greater the threat that NASA will continue limping along as a favored source of high-paying jobs in a handful of influential states and districts.

Lawmakers are already lining up against the kinds of changes needed to reshape NASA for a robust and productive future. Members of the Ohio and Virginia delegations, for example, have expressed opposition to proposed reductions in the number of civil servants working at the Glenn Research Center outside Cleveland and the Langley Research Center in the Hampton Roads area of southeastern Virginia.

Many members of the House and Senate also are concerned about the steep cuts in aeronautics research that are called for in the 2006 budget request and the five-year spending plan that accompanies it. Others are putting intense pressure on NASA to move forward with an expensive mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope.

Still others are opposed to giving NASA another raise when so many other non-defense agencies are getting no increase for the second year in a row. And clearly pressure is growing on Congress to gain some control over the ballooning U.S. budget deficit.

This is where Congress must be prepared to make tough choices — some of which will make for some unhappy constituents back home.

By moving ahead with the crew exploration vehicle, foregoing a Hubble repair mission, cutting aeronautics research, planning for the shuttle’s retirement and taking early steps to shed workers it does not need , NASA is making the tough decisions.

Congress needs to follow suit. They should be looking forward to missions to the Moon and beyond, and helping NASA achieve that goal by making those missions possible within the very limited resources NASA will have for the foreseeable future.

The vision is not perfect, but it is a good roadmap that will help NASA to again achieve great things. A great deal is being asked of NASA on a very limited budget.

If Congress cuts that budget and interferes with NASA’s admirable attempts to cut some existing programs, it risks doing long-term damage . It is past time for NASA to start moving beyond the shuttle and the international space station and start doing great things again. A NASA that is focused primarily on its existing programs is an agency in which the public will quickly lose interest.