(Washington, DC)  The House Science Committee held a hearing today to review the Administration’s fiscal year 2006 budget request for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).  Science Committee Democrats expressed support for NASA programs while cautioning that many important existing research activities are being put at risk over the next few years as a result of NASA’s proposed new exploration initiative – an initiative that has yet to be fully examined and debated by Congress.

“I am a strong supporter of exploration,” stated Science Committee Ranking Member Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN).  “I think we need challenging goals for our space program.  I want NASA to succeed.  At the same time, I think NASA is headed for a potential train wreck as it puts all its eggs in the exploration basket at a time when deficit concerns are going to keep squeezing domestic discretionary spending.”

On January 14, 2004, President Bush announced a space exploration initiative that proposed returning U.S. astronauts to the Moon by 2020, followed by eventual human missions to Mars.  The Science Committee held two hearings on the President’s initiative shortly after it was announced, but the Administration witnesses were able to provide few details on the proposal at those hearings.  Since that time, there has been very little public Congressional scrutiny of the President’s initiative.

“I remember when the Space Station program survived by a single vote in 1993,” added Rep. Gordon.  “I wouldn’t be surprised to see the exploration initiative face a similar vote in the next four to five years, and I wouldn’t want to predict the outcome.  There are going to be a lot of Members who will see a mission to Mars as taking money away from other important national priorities.  Cannibalizing NASA’s science and aeronautics programs to fund the exploration initiative will further narrow the base of support for NASA in Congress.”

In the absence of any clear Congressional consensus on the priority NASA should attach to the President’s exploration initiative relative to NASA’s other missions, Science Committee Democrats questioned NASA Deputy Administrator Fred Gregory on how funding for exploration programs might affect other important NASA missions – specifically science and aeronautics research programs.  Questions were also posed on the planned privatization of NASA Centers and the impact of those plans on the existing NASA workforce and facilities.

“I consider myself to be a champion of space exploration in its broadest sense – the adventure of pushing back the boundaries of our ignorance with both robotic and human explorers, as well as with researchers in the laboratory and the observatory.  I am troubled that the President’s exploration initiative seems to be couched in terms of having to walk away from important research areas in science and aeronautics if we want to do exploration.  One of those important research projects is of course the Hubble Telescope, but it’s not the only one.  We should be able to pursue the vision and continue to invest in science,” said Rep. Mark Udall (D-CO), ranking member of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee.

“It’s not going to be easy, but I think it’s critically important for Congress to take a long, hard look at the President’s initiative and try to form a consensus on what future direction we want for NASA,” concluded Rep. Gordon.