WASHINGTON — The takeover of the U.S. House of Representatives by Republicans promising a new era of fiscal restraint has spawned concerns that NASA’s budget will suffer, but lawmakers poised to assume key committee chairmanships next year have been strong supporters of the space agency.
As of press time, the Republicans had picked up 60 seats in the House as a result of the Nov. 2 elections, well above the 39 needed to regain the majority when the new Congress convenes in January. While the Senate will remain under Democratic control, Republicans picked up seats in that chamber as well.
Opinions vary on what the House leadership change means for NASA, although there is some agreement that the agency, already struggling with a mismatch between the programs it is charged with executing and the funding it has available, will face additional downward pressure on its budget. House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), for example, the presumptive speaker of the House, has pledged to cut domestic federal spending to 2008 levels, a move that could put the $19 billion authorized by Congress for NASA in 2011 in jeopardy. Boehner voted against that measure, which ultimately passed and was signed into law by U.S. President Barack Obama Oct. 11.
“We’re ready to cut spending to pre-stimulus, pre-bailout levels, saving taxpayers $100 billion almost immediately,” Boehner said in a weekly Republican address Oct. 30. “And we’re ready to put in place strict budget caps that limit spending from here on out, to ensure that Washington is no longer on this spending binge.”
In a written response to a Space News question, Bill Adkins, a former professional staff member on the House Science and Technology Committee, said in previous years NASA’s budget was spared from freezes while other nondefense agencies saw their budgets held flat.
“But the game is changing,” said Adkins, now principal with the Center for Strategic Space Studies here. “The current  budget may be NASA’s high-water mark for a while.”
Adkins said if NASA’s budget is pared back to 2008 levels — effectively a 10 percent cut to the $19 billion authorized for next year — the agency could be forced to address fundamental questions about the size and scope of its mission. Such cuts might be a harder sell in the Senate, Adkins said, but he noted that budget hawks there are emboldened.
Adkins said the specter of looming spending cuts is not all bad for NASA. “It may be counterintuitive, but a little budget pressure may actually provide clarity to the choices the agency faces and hasten the process of focusing on solutions, but it’s a delicate balance,” he said. “Cut too deep and the country risks losing irreplaceable capabilities.”
Marcia Smith, a space policy consultant here and editor of SpacePolicyOnline.com, was more blunt in her assessment. “The Republican takeover of the House is not good news for NASA,” Smith said in a written response to a question from Space News. “It’s not that Republicans don’t like NASA. … But they love NASA more in good economic times than in bad, and these are really bad economic times.”
Smith said the Republican victory likely will put more political pressure on Obama to do more to rein in federal spending as he looks ahead to the 2012 presidential election. She also said NASA’s Earth science program, which is earmarked for spending increases by the Obama administration but has long been a target of Republican lawmakers, “may encounter rough seas ahead instead of the smooth sailing it enjoyed this year.”
John Logsdon, professor emeritus at the George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute here, said it is unclear how the change in House leadership will affect NASA spending, though he said if a NASA appropriations bill is approved during the coming lame-duck session of Congress, it likely would fund the agency at levels lower than those authorized in October. NASA, like the rest of the federal government, is operating at fiscal year 2010 spending levels under a continuing resolution slated to expire Dec. 3.
“I think an across-the-board deficit reduction movement is likely, and NASA cannot avoid that,” Logsdon said in a Nov. 4 interview, adding that if an omnibus appropriations bill does not move until the 112th Congress convenes in January, “cuts under Republicans would be greater, but I’m not sure NASA would be a particular target. There is still a fairly strong base of support for a good space program.”
That support was evident over the past year as lawmakers from both sides of the aisle allied against Obama’s plan to cancel NASA’s Moon-bound Constellation program while delaying work on new hardware that could send astronauts to explore deep space. Obama also hopes to spend $6 billion over five years to foster a privately developed crew transportation system for operations in low Earth orbit. The 2010 NASA Authorization Act is widely viewed as a compromise that finds middle ground between the Constellation program and the White House plan.
Reps. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) and Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who are expected to assume leadership of the House Appropriations Committee and its commerce, justice, science subcommittee, respectively, opposed funding cuts to Constellation approved in a draft appropriations bill last year. That measure, which was ultimately worked into a broader omnibus spending package, provided $18.2 billion for the agency in 2010, but froze funding for human space exploration pending the findings of a White House-appointed panel tasked with evaluating NASA’s plans in that area.
The following February, when Obama unveiled his new direction for NASA in a budget blueprint sent to Congress, Wolf criticized the plan for ceding U.S. leadership in space. “We would turn over the American space program to allow China to catch us,” said Wolf, a frequent China critic who strongly opposed a recent visit to Beijing by NASA Administrator Charles.
Wolf also took issue with a plan to foster development of commercial crew taxis to ferry astronauts to and from the space station, which Obama pledged to continue flying through at least 2020. In an April 20 interview, Wolf said private space firms could have “a role to bring cargo back and forth” between Earth and the orbiting outpost, but singled out one of two firms building new hardware for such missions — Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies — as not having “the best record in the world.” The other company, Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp., is located in Wolf’s Virginia district.
Wolf ultimately supported the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, which recommends spending $1.3 billion over the next three years to develop commercial crew taxis. The measure also directs NASA to begin work on a heavy-lift rocket in 2011, some five years earlier than Obama envisioned.
Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas), who is expected to take the chair of the House Science and Technology Committee next year, voted for the measure, but expressed misgivings. He had previously supported a draft NASA authorization bill — which was ultimately scrapped — that would have gutted NASA’s commercial crew initiative while restoring many elements of the Constellation program.
“While the bill before us today is far from perfect, it offers clear direction for a NASA that’s floundering,” Hall said in remarks on the House floor Sept. 29, shortly before the measure was adopted.
Rep. Pete Olson (R-Texas), the presumptive chair of the House Science and Technology space and aeronautics subcommittee, also opposed Obama’s plan to kill Constellation. Like Hall, Olson voted for the authorization bill that ultimately became law.
“He and his colleagues won an important battle this year over the future of human space flight and he looks forward to continuing that effort,” Melissa Kelly, a spokeswoman for Olson, said in a Nov. 4 e-mail.