WASHINGTON — K ey congressional Democrats said they are willing to approve extra funding for NASA, but called on U.S. President George W. Bush to request the additional money his own space agency chief acknowledged is needed to keep delivery of the space shuttle’s replacement system on track for 2014.
One Democratic senator even called for the White House to host the first bipartisan space summit in more than a decade to discuss the way ahead for NASA.
Over three days of testimony, March 13-15, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin explained in detail to the agency’s congressional oversight panels why a $577 million budget shortfall this year threatens the timeline Bush outlined in 2004 for replacing the space shuttle with a multi billion-dollar fleet of spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts to the Moon.
“Based on current projections, we will not be able to meet the 2014 milestone originally called for when President Bush announced the Vision for Space Exploration,” Griffin said during the first of three hearings held last week on NASA’s 2008 budget request.
The White House is seeking $17.3 billion for NASA for 2008, or a 6.5-percent increase over the agency’s current budget, which is the same amount it was in 2006. When compared to what NASA was expecting to get for 2007 before Congress decided to keep most non-defense programs funded at their 2006 levels rather than tackle a pile of unfinished spending bills, NASA’s 2008 request represents a 3.1 percent increase.
Regardless of how NASA’s budget request is framed, congressional Democrats, and even a few Republicans, said last week that it is too small to cover all that NASA needs to get done.
“NASA has too many responsibilities and not enough resources to accomplish them all,” said Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W. Va.), chairman of the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee. “Although the administration gave you a reasonably high budget request compared to many other domestic discretionary programs, it really is not sufficient.”
House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) said during his committee’s NASA hearing March 15 that the U.S. space program is “headed for a train wreck” without additional money. “I will not kid you that it’s going to be easy to get the funding you are asking for in this year’s request, especially if the White House remains disengaged,” he said.
Rep. Ken Calvert of California, the top Republican on the House Science and Technology space and aeronautics subcommittee, termed NASA’s 2008 budget request “not sufficient” and called on NASA stakeholders to “work on securing a bigger overall NASA pie.”
Griffin did not ask lawmakers for more money beyond what the White House is seeking for NASA, but detailed at their request what it would cost to keep Orion and Ares on track for 2014.
Griffin said that this year’s $577 million shortfall would cost $750 million to remedy if Congress waits beyond this budget year to try to make it up. In order to keep Orion’s first crewed flight on track for September 2014, Griffin said, NASA would need $350 million beyond what it is currently projecting it will need to budget for the project in 2009 followed by an additional $400 million for 2010. “I would emphasize that money added later always cost more than money taken away now,” Griffin said.
Mollohan, noting that NASA deliberately has been carrying over surplus Orion and Ares money since 2006 to avoid sharp funding spikes during the more intensive development years just ahead, said he was having a hard time understanding how a shortfall this year translates into a six-month schedule slip down the road.
“I don’t see any real delay here, because you have carry over for ’07, you have carryover for ’08. It’s in ’09 that you just said that your shortfall hits, ” Mollohan said.
Griffin said NASA has consistently explained that the shortfall does not cause problems until 2009. “The effect on the [shortfall] has to be seen by looking at the program as a whole, the size of the budget pot as a whole,” he said. “So unless I make an assumption, which I am not entitled to make, that there will be future funding to fill in the hole … we wind up short and can only add it on the back end,” he said.
Mollohan said he understood why NASA cannot assume the White House will make up for the shortfall by requesting the additional money needed to keep Orion and Ares from slipping into 2015, but said he did not see the need for immediate action, especially since the White House could solve the problem by including more money for Orion and Ares when it submits its 2009 budget request next year. “It’s prudent of you to make us aware of this, but we do have years to address this,” he said.
“Correct to a certain point,” Griffin said. “But if our planning assumptions that reflect the funding we have today continue for the next year or so, then the contractor will be setting up to do work based on the funding they know they have — not that they assume they might get — and we will be locked in place.”
NASA signed a $3.9 billion contract withfor Orion last August and expects to have all elements of the Ares launcher under contract by the end of this year.
Several times during the hearing, Mollohan suggested the White House needs to do more to ensure NASA has adequate funding to implement the space agenda outlined by Bush, pointedly asking Griffin whether a revised budget request for 2008 was in the works. Griffin would only say that NASA is “in discussion” with the White House “about the fact that the presidential milestone date of no later than 2014 can now not be met.”
Later in the hearing, in response to a question from Rep. Adam Schiff, a California Democrat who said he views NASA’s budget request as “a floor not a ceiling,” Griffin outlined how he would apportion any additional money Congress might decide to appropriate to make up for this year’s shortfall. “I basically would put it back where it came from,” Griffin said, explaining that the Science Mission Directorate would be given the $75 million difference between its request for 2007 and what it actually got; Space Operations would get another $95 million; and Aeronautics Research, which Congress funded above NASA’s request, would get to keep its windfall. Whatever was left after that, he said, would be used for Orion and Ares.
Griffin also acknowledged last week that NASA’s 2007 budget shortfall is only partially to blame for Orion and Ares’ projected six-month slip into 2015, saying the delay is a result of “an accumulation of issues.”
In the past two years, NASA has faced higher-than-expected bills for returning the space shuttle to flight following the 2003 Columbia accident; has come to terms with previously underestimated costs for flying out the shuttle and finishing the international space station; and has repaired extensive hurricane damage at its Gulf Coast field centers with only a partial reimbursement from Congress.
While Griffin did not point out that the White House also has failed to increase NASA’s budget at the pace it promised back in 2004 forcing the agency to make unpopular cuts to its aeronautics and science programs, several lawmakers did.
“I think it’s clear we have a budgetary situation that bears little resemblance to the rosy projections offered by the administration when the president announced his Vision for Space Exploration three years ago,” Gordon said during the March 15 hearing.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski, the Maryland Democrat who chairs the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee, made much the same point later that afternoon when she convened the last NASA budget hearing of the week,
“There is simply too much pressure on NASA’s budget — now and in the future,” she said. “The only way to reduce the pressure on the budget, and maintain a balanced space program, is to raise the top line for NASA.”
Mikulski tried last year to get NASA $1 billion above and beyond its request, managing with the support of Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex) and Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) to get the supplemental funding added to a spending bill that cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee, but it never made it to the floor for a vote. Mikulski said during her hearing that she would try again this year, this time as the chair of the subcommittee responsible for drafting the NASA spending bill.
Mikulski also called for the White House to host a space summit with lawmakers similar to the one Bush’s father hosted in 1989. “We need a new dialogue with the president and his administration,” she said. “We need a national commitment to our space program to put it on a path for success.” Mikulski also said there appears to be a disconnect between the vision Bush outlined in 2004 and the spending plans put forward by the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) .
“I think the president has a vision of where he wants to go and I think you are in alignment with that,” she said to Griffin, “but I think that there’s a gap here with OMB view of the vision.”
Mikulski spokesman Melissa Schwartz said March 16 that the senator “will be consulting with her colleagues on both sides of the aisle before making a formal request to the White House” for a space summit.