NASA Administrator Mike Griffin warned a Washington audience of tough times ahead for the U.S. space program, saying
it was likely Congress would adjourn this year without approving the space agency’s 2009 budget request.


Griffin said part of the problem facing NASA is that the United States is getting ready to elect a new president in November who might have different priorities. “Presidential transition years are never smooth,” he said. “We are extraordinarily fortunate in this country that we have never had a presidential election so tough that it had to be settled with guns. But they are never smooth and the expectation that they will be smooth is a silly expectation. They are accompanied by quite a lot of turmoil as a new team gets elected
and begins to pursue their agenda after they figure out where the bathrooms are. Because let’s face it, getting elected is not governing. And the team which has spent all of its energy getting elected probably has not been spending all of its energy figuring out how to govern.”


“There will be changes in priorities,” Griffin
said, noting that it is a near certainty that for at least part of the 2009 budget year that begins Oct. 1, NASA will be forced to make due with a $17.3 billion annual budget level, the same amount it received for 2008. “The question is whether it will be for six months or a full year,” he said.


Griffin said any time Congress passes a continuing resolution that holds agencies to their current spending levels at a time when the economy is experiencing inflation translates into a budget cut.


“And so we will be cutting the budget at NASA and the only question is how much,” Griffin said, “And then the second question, after how much is decided, is will the continuing resolution be broadly applied and left to the discretion of agency heads to implement or will special programs be targeted to be either favored or disfavored? Those are questions that only Congress can settle.”


After Democrats took control of Congress in 2006, they passed a continuing resolution that held domestic agencies, excluding defense and homeland security, to their 2006 spending levels. For NASA, that meant making due with $16.2 billion instead of the $16.792 billion it had requested.


“It’s a time of incredible turmoil at NASA but we know before we start that we are arguing about the difference between bad and worse, not between good and better. A presidential transition is not a fun time. A continuing resolution is not a fun time. There will be damage. It will be unintentional damage, but there will be damage.”


Griffin made his remarks
during an impromptu speech before the Washington Space Business Roundtable’s monthly luncheon. He was filling in for Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who was delayed by a floor vote on a $165 billion war spending package that included $200 million for NASA.


Once Nelson finally arrived, the senator trumpeted the $200 million in additional funding for NASA

that was included in the
bill. He told the luncheon audience that he personally pigeonholed several colleagues, including Sen. Mel Martinez (R-Fla.) to get them to change their votes.


Nelson said the $200 million is only a down payment on what he and other NASA boosters hope to secure for the space agency this year. If the full House and Senate both approve the extra $200 million for NASA and manage to avoid a presidential veto, the next step will be to “try to get another $800 million or so” in NASA’s 2009 budget, Nelson


Nelson said the additional money would permit the agency to shorten the looming gap in its ability to launch astronauts into orbit from five years
to three years.
Nelson also said he talked briefly with presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama, (D-Ill.)
, thanking him for his recent comments about NASA’s importance during a Florida campaign stop
. Nelson said he told Obama the key to winning Florida in the general election will be having a plan that mitigates the impact of looming layoffs at Kennedy Space Center.


After his talk, Nelson told Space News the Senate Commerce space and aeronautics subcommittee he chairs is scheduled to mark up the NASA authorization bill June 19.


Nelson said he intends to hold a hearing on the differences between his bill and the one approved by the House Science and Technology space and aeronautics subcommittee May 20. Then the goal will be to minimize the differences
to obviate the need for appointing a formal conference committee and thus improve the bill’s chances of passing this year.

Comments: bberger@space.com