The proposed NASA Authorization Act for 2009 may or may not become law, but both the House and Senate versions of the bill carry an important message for both candidates vying to move into the White House next January: The U.S. civil space program, including the current president’s human exploration initiative, has bipartisan support among key members of Congress – and not enough money to properly execute.

Rep. Tom Feeney of Florida, the ranking Republican on the House Science and Technology space and aeronautics subcommittee, underscored what the bill represents during floor debate on the House version June 12: “We don’t know who the next president will be, we don’t know who the next NASA administrator will be, but the starting point for the next administration’s space program is designed right here in the House of Representatives.”

Of course, there is no chance that NASA will see the $20.2 billion approved for agency activities in both versions of the bill. In that sense the authorizers could rightly be accused of failing to make the tough choices that identify true priorities. Their counterparts on the House and Senate appropriations committees, who must work within established ceilings covering the various categories of domestic federal spending, were less generous to NASA, recommending an annual budget of some $17.8 billion.

In reality, NASA will be lucky to receive the $17.6 billion requested by the administration of U.S. President George W. Bush given the strong likelihood of a continuing resolution that keeps most domestic agencies at their 2008 spending levels for at least part of 2009. NASA’s 2008 budget is $17.3 billion.

Aside from the purely symbolic funding allocation, the most prominent feature of the authorization bills – at least insofar as they diverge from presidential policy – is their space shuttle provisions.
Both bills would require NASA to conduct three shuttle missions to the international space station that currently are not on the manifest: two would deliver spare parts needed to keep the facility operating beyond 2015; one would carry the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), an anti-matter experiment on which more than a dozen nations have already spent some $1.5 billion.

The Bush administration has voiced opposition to the bill, its shuttle-related provisions in particular, but stopped short of issuing a veto threat. The White House’s concerns are not unreasonable: adding three flights will make it that much more difficult to retire the orbiter fleet by the end of 2010 as planned. While prudence dictates that NASA prepare for the possibility that shuttle operations continue for at least part of 2011, any significant extension will be very costly and almost surely will push the fielding of the space shuttle’s replacement beyond 2015.

As drafted, the Senate version of the bill would bar NASA from taking any action that prevents the shuttle from flying beyond 2010, such as closing down component production lines. The bill also orders up a study on the implications of continuing shuttle operations through 2015. These provisions go too far – they have the tell-tale look of a rear-guard action by the so-called shuttle mafia that wants to keep the orbiter flying indefinitely.

According to NASA Administrator Mike Griffin, it is possible to fly the AMS without keeping the shuttle component contracts open at a cost of some $300 million to $400 million. While not an insignificant amount of money, this is but a fraction of the $3 billion to $4 billion that Mr. Griffin says it will cost to do as the Senate recommends.

These provisions should be stripped from the Senate bill, either when it goes to the floor for a vote or in conference – should the legislation make it that far. Any chance there is of President Bush signing this bill will be diminished significantly if it contains these measures.

Whether or not the president would sign the version just passed by the House is questionable. But the fact is that NASA already is operating under the assumption that it ultimately will carry out the two additional space station logistics flights, even if they are not on the official manifest. As for the AMS, it is clear that those in Congress who pay the most attention to NASA want it launched and are prepared to do everything in their power to make that happen.

Assuming most of the core supporters of the authorization bill survive the upcoming elections and are back next year – it is worth noting in this regard that the House version passed by a 409- 15 vote – the next administration likely is going to have to deal with the AMS issue, whether or not this particular piece of legislation is enacted. While significant in its own right, the AMS issue is emblematic of the space legacy President Bush is leaving to his successor: a space agency with a congressionally supported, yet underfunded, mandate to transition to the post-shuttle era while maintaining some semblance of balance in its current slate of activities.

It is not obvious at this point that either of the presumptive nominees for the job is paying any attention. Sooner or later, one of them is going to have to.