Human spaceflight advocates are holding out hope that the U.S. Senate will overturn some of the provisions in a 2007 domestic spending measure passed by the House of Representatives Jan. 31 that they fear could disrupt NASA’s effort to replace the space shuttle by 2014.


It does not appear, however, that any relief is forthcoming.


That’s the message from the office of Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), traditionally one of NASA’s strongest supporters and chair of the Senate Appropriations panel that funds the space agency. Indeed, the joint resolution has all the hallmarks of a deal whose terms were sealed by both chambers before it was ever unveiled.


As a result, NASA, like most other federal agencies covered by the spending package, will have to make due in 2007 with the same amount of funding it had in 2006 – just slightly more than $16.2 billion.


NASA had indications of what was coming since December, when Congress’ newly empowered Democrats unveiled their plan for dealing with nine unfinished domestic spending bills for 2007. In hopes of keeping its Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and Ares 1 launcher programs on track, NASA appealed for flexibility in determining how best to spend the money in its budget. It was not too much to ask, but that request was rebuffed by the appropriators, who added insult to injury by directing NASA to spend $166 million more this year than the agency requested on aeronautics research.


As a result, NASA is going to find it far more difficult to meet the congressionally endorsed 2014 date for fielding Orion and Ares. In addition, the cost of those programs is likely to increase, as is the length of time it will take beyond the space shuttle’s planned 2010 retirement for the
United States
to be able to independently launch astronauts into space. This delay could provide fodder for those who would argue in favor of keeping the space shuttle fleet operating beyond 2010, something NASA, the White House and Congress should reject under any circumstances.


It is easy to blame congressional Democrats – as at least one prominent House Republican already has – for the situation NASA finds itself in; the joint resolution is their bill, after all. But that would be an oversimplification: This situation has been brewing for at least two years, and responsibility rests with Democrats, Republicans, Capitol Hill and the White House.


It starts with U.S. President George W. Bush, who in the years since unveiling the Vision for Space Exploration, which calls for replacing the space shuttle and returning astronauts to the Moon, has not sought adequate funding from Congress to keep the effort on schedule without gutting NASA’s science and aeronautics programs.


The administration’s cost estimates for the vision and for returning the space shuttle to flight after the 2003
disaster were overly optimistic from the start. So too, were White House projections of the funding it would make available to NASA during the latter half of the decade.


House and Senate Republicans, meanwhile, had a chance to pass a 2007 NASA spending bill that would have given the agency a top-line budget of nearly $16.8 billion and fully funded the Orion and Ares programs. Instead, they left the work of finishing the 2007 funding bills for NASA and many other domestic federal agencies to the next Congress. Had the previous Congress done its job, NASA’s budget situation would merely be very challenging, as opposed to nearly impossible.


That said, Democrats did NASA and its constituents no favors in crafting this resolution. Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee and one of the architects of the measure, acknowledged in a statement that “we probably have made some wrong choices.”


Although it seems unlikely that he was referring to NASA, the description fits the bill perfectly as it relates to the space agency. It was the wrong choice, for example, to earmark $166 million for aeronautics research when NASA has no plan for spending the money – a recipe that all but guarantees that U.S. taxpayers will get nothing in return for that extra investment.


It also was wrong of the Democratic leadership to put so little trust in NASA as to deny the agency any spending flexibility for the year. Do they really think NASA would risk completely alienating an already-disgruntled science community by further gutting astronomy and planetary exploration accounts to fund Orion and Ares? The Senate is expected to vote on the joint resolution by Feb. 15, when the continuing resolution under which most of the federal government is currently operating expires. If there is any opportunity to undo the damage by eliminating the aeronautics earmark and giving NASA some budgetary discretion in 2007, it appears very narrow.


This does not mean that NASA’s supporters in the Senate – including Sens. Mikulski and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) – should abandon the fight. But it does mean that NASA must begin planning for the worst, and hope that Congress and the White House demonstrate a true commitment to a policy that has rightfully won support from both political parties.


The White House’s $17.3 billion budget request for NASA in 2008 – which is in line with projections that accompanied the 2007 request – is a good sign in that regard. It is now up to Congress, and its Democratic leadership in particular, to show where NASA and space exploration reside on its list of priorities.