It is a long shot, but there is a chance that Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) will succeed in securing an extra $1 billion for NASA next year to help cover the costs associated with the Space Shuttle Columbia accident and hurricane damage to agency field centers — provided that NASA’s constituency groups in industry, academia and elsewhere unite strongly behind the measure.
The lawmakers cleared their first major hurdle July 13 when they successfully got their emergency spending amendment attached to the Senate version of the Commerce, Justice, Science appropriations bill for 2007.
The emergency funding would come on top of the roughly $16.7 billion that Congress will approve for NASA next year in the appropriations bill. This amount, which is based closely on U.S. President George W. Bush’s request, is not nearly enough for the agency to resume assembly of the international space station, begin serious work on a space shuttle replacement and maintain healthy science and aeronautics programs.
NASA’s major constituency groups were represented during a meeting on Capitol Hill June 23 in which aides to Sens. Mikulski and Hutchison — both of whom sit on the Senate Appropriations Committee — outlined their plan for the amendment.
During the briefing, the aides said they asked NASA for a detailed accounting of the costs it incurred as a result of the 2003 Columbia accident and last year’s Gulf Coast hurricanes. NASA responded about a week later with the numbers: $2.3 billion through 2006 for space shuttle return-to-flight activities and another $500 million-$750 million for hurricane damage. Congress so far has covered $385 million of the hurricane bills.
The funding contained in the emergency amendment is less than half of what NASA says it needs, with the sponsors making clear that they will be back with a similar provision next year if President Bush does not seek more money for the space agency in his 2008 budget request.
The aides stressed that the amendment faces major hurdles, both in the Senate and the House. Sens. Pete Domenici (R.-N.M.) and Larry Craig (R-Idaho) are now on record in opposition, having spoken out against the measure during the markup of the bill. One aide warned that others, such as possible presidential aspirant Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), also could weigh in against the measure.
The road promises to be even tougher in the House of Representatives. In an indication of its receptiveness — or more precisely the lack thereof — the House recently passed a 2007 spending bill that provides $83 million less for NASA than the amount sought in the president’s undersized request.
If the Mikulski-Hutchison amendment is to have any chance of becoming law, NASA’s stakeholders in industry and in academia must spare no effort in the next few months to build up support for it, both on Capitol Hill and in the White House.
It is equally imperative that these constituency groups speak with a single, united voice on the matter. This is not the time for one particular group — astronomers, just to name an example — to try to make the case with lawmakers that their particular field should take priority over another.
It is understandable if some are uneasy over how NASA might choose to divide the money, but the first order of business is securing it. Any discord while the amendment is under consideration almost certainly will reduce if not kill its chances, in which case all of NASA’s stakeholders will have a lot more to be uneasy about.