House Joint Resolution Threatens Timeline for Shuttle Replacement

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  Space News Business

House Joint Resolution Threatens Timeline for Shuttle Replacement

By BRIAN BERGER
Space News Staff Writer
posted: 07 February 2007
04:14 pm ET



WASHINGTON
– NASA’s plan to field a space shuttle replacement by 2014 was thrown into doubt Jan. 31 after the U.S. House of Representatives passed a broad spending measure that would leave the agency with no funding increase this year.

 

The Senate is expected to vote on the legislation by Feb. 15, but sources there offered little hope that the package will change much before being sent to the White House for the president’s signature.

 

The $463 billion House bill, approved on a largely party-line vote of 286-140, funds most
U.S.
government agencies at their 2006 levels, but provides big increases for veterans’ health care benefits, student loans and other priorities of the new Democratic majority.

 

NASA received no such special treatment in House Resolution 20, an austere spending measure that Democrats intend to push through Congress by mid-February in lieu of tackling nine 2007 spending bills left unfinished at the end of the last legislative session.

 

The measure, crafted in close consultation with the Senate, funds NASA at $16.247 billion, the same as the agency got for 2006, but $545 million less than it was seeking for 2007. Moreover, it denies NASA the flexibility it was seeking to transfer funds from other accounts to keep its shuttle replacement effort on track, instead setting specific spending levels for the agency’s four main mission directorates.

 

The NASA mission directorates responsible for Earth and space science, and for the space shuttle and international space station programs, both were funded within 2 percent of what the agency had requested for 2007. NASA’s Aeronautics Mission Directorate, however, was given over 20 percent more than what was requested while the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate was given 15 percent less than what agency officials had asked for.

 

The $3.4 billion allocated for Exploration Systems represents a $350 million increase over 2006 – a bigger increase than any other part of the agency stands to receive. The trouble is, NASA officials said, the figure is still some $577 million shy of the full request. And with little or no authority to shift money between accounts to make up the difference, these officials said, Exploration Systems will be hard pressed to keep the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and its Ares 1 launcher programs on track.

 

“Those funding levels would reduce the money for Orion and Ares to the point where we might not be able to bring the capabilities on line by 2014,” NASA spokesman David Mould said.

 

NASA was not caught completely off guard by the funding bill. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) and his Senate counterpart, Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), announced in December their plan to combine all unfinished spending bills into a package that would exclude the thousands of special funding provisions, or earmarks, lawmakers use to direct federal money to their districts.

 

“I don’t expect people to love this proposal, I don’t love this proposal, and we probably have made some wrong choices,” Obey said in a statement. “But in contrast to last year’s Congress, which decided to duck these choices, at least we have made them in order to bring last year’s issues to a conclusion so we can turn the page and deal with next year’s priorities.”

 

Republican lawmakers complained that they were excluded from drafting the measure and given no opportunities to offer amendments. Rep. David Weldon (R-Fla.), whose congressional district is home to many space shuttle workers, said the measure disrupts NASA’s plan to ramp up development of Orion and Ares 1 as work on the space shuttle, slated for retirement in 2010, begins to wind down.

 

“Not only does this budget not provide the needed funding for ramping up development of Orion, it actually raids the Orion budget to earmark funds for programs in several key Democrat (sic) districts,” Weldon warned his House colleagues in a floor speech. “This budget will delay the development of Orion, which will widen the transition time between the shuttle and Orion, resulting in the loss of thousands of highly skilled jobs.”

 

The Coalition for Space Exploration, an industry group formed to promote NASA’s plan to return to the Moon, also saw the joint resolution as a big setback for Ares and Orion.

 

The coalition’s main spokesman, Joe Mayer, a business development manager with Boeing Space Exploration in
Houston
, said the joint resolution “deals a heavy blow to
America
‘s space program.”

 

“It will extend the gap in human space flight beyond 2014 by delaying the development of the Orion spacecraft and Ares launch vehicle,” Mayer said in a statement. “It will also extend our nation’s reliance on
Russia
for human space flight capability.”

 

NASA has been directed by the White House and Congress to retire the space shuttle by the end of 2010 and field its replacement no later than 2014. NASA Administrator Mike Griffin took office in 2005 vowing to significantly narrow – if not eliminate – that gap, but was forced by budget circumstances to admit that the agency could not afford to field the new spacecraft much before 2014.

 

NASA has been paying
Russia
to transport astronauts and supplies to the international space station and expects to continue to do so until either Orion or a domestic commercial alternative enters service.

 

Last summer, NASA awarded Rocketplane Kistler of
Oklahoma City
and El Segundo, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp. a total of $500 million to help them develop and demonstrate potential space station resupply systems by 2010. Both firms are reporting progress, but NASA officials have frequently characterized the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services effort as something of a long shot.

 

Mayer expressed hope that the Senate, which has yet to take up the measure, would come through with more money for NASA.

 

“We strongly encourage the Senate – which only two months ago approved in the Appropriations Committee a $1 billion increase in funding for NASA – to take an aggressive stand opposing the House cuts and in support of keeping
America
‘s space exploration program moving forward.”

 

A Senate aide told Space News Jan. 31 that was not likely to happen, pointing out that the spending resolution passed by the House was written in close consultation with the Senate Appropriations Committee.

 

The Senate aide also expressed skepticism that funding exploration at $3.4 billion this year would jeopardize the Ares and Orion programs.

 

“I think they have enough to move ahead and move forward,” the Senate aide said. “This doomsday scenario is kind of nonsense.”

 

Melissa Schwartz, a spokeswoman for Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, and science subcommittee chairwoman who last year pushed for a $1 billion supplemental for NASA, said the agency funding level approved by the House was the best that could be expected given the circumstances.

 

“Senator Mikulski has been fighting for increased funding for NASA’s bottom line for more than a year,” Schwartz said. “Unfortunately, the terms of the [continuing resolution] did not allow for an increase.”

 

Schwartz said the budget increase NASA’s Exploration Systems Directorate still stands to receive, while smaller than the agency would have liked, “should be considered a small victory given the situation the 110th Congress inherited.”

 

Even before the latest budget news, NASA had been searching high and low for savings, tossing a number of projects overboard in hopes of keeping Orion and Ares afloat in the years ahead. Exploration Systems officials, for example, recently informed congressional staffers that a roughly $700 million robotic lunar lander the agency had intended to build as a follow-on to the 2008 Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter had been taken off the table.

 

The agency also sacrificed the $75 million strategic venture capital fund it established late last year to invest in emerging technologies that might someday be useful to NASA. Officials familiar with the matter said $12 million in initial seed money for Red Planet Capital did not survive final negotiations over the agency’s 2008 budget request, which goes to Congress Feb. 5.

 

 

Resolution At a Glance

 

Comparison of House language for 2007 continuing resolution with final 2006 operating plan and 2007 president’s request. ($ in millions)

 

 

FY 2006 less Emergency Supplemental and NOAA Transfer

FY 2007 President’s Request

FY 2007 House CR Language

Change from FY 2007 President’s Request

 

 

 

 

 

Total NASA

16,246.6

16,792.3

16,247.0

(545.3)

 

 

 

 

 

Science, Aeronautics, and Exploration

 

Science

 

Exploration Systems

 

Aeronautics Research

 

Cross-Agency Support Programs

9,694.7

 

5,217.9

 

3,050.1

 

893.2

 

533.5

10,524.4

 

 

 

5,330.0

 

3,978.3

 

724.4

 

491.7

 

 

10,075.0

 

5,251.2

 

3,401.6

 

890.4

 

531.8

(449.4)

 

(78.8)

 

(576.7)

 

166.0

 

40.1

Exploration Capabilities

 

Space Operations

6,519.9

 

6,519.9

6,234.4

 

6,234.4

6,140.0

 

6,140.0

(94.4)

 

(94.4)

Inspector General

32.0

33.5

32.0

(1.5)

 

Source: NASA