GREENBELT, Md. – U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) pledged to “work [her] earrings off” to prevent NASA from losing any ground in this year’s budget battle.

The White House is seeking $17.6 billion for NASA for 2009, a 1.8 percent increase over what it sought and received for the space agency for 2008.

Mikulski, who chairs the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee, called this year’s NASA budget request “stagnant,” but stopped short of saying she would fight for additional funding as she has done the past two years — with mixed results.

Addressing the Maryland Space Business Roundtable here Feb. 25 at a luncheon attended by NASA Administrator Mike Griffin and several hundred space professionals, Mikulski said her guiding principle in drafting NASA spending legislation this year would be to “do no harm.”

“That means whatever we got we’re going to hold on to it and won’t fall behind,” she said.

She pledged to craft a budget that supports a “balanced space program.” While offering few specifics, she said she would work to “fully fund” development of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and its Ares 1 launcher. The combined system is due to come on line by March 2015, nearly five years after NASA plans to stop flying the space shuttle.

“I think it’s just awful that we are going to spend five years where we cannot go to space,” she said. “Not only is it undesirable, it is unacceptable from the United States of America.”

Mikulski also said it was important that the United States finishes building the international space station “no matter what” and makes sure the station fulfills its potential as a world-class research facility. “[W]e’re not just going to leave it as some space junk in the sky with two astronauts keeping it going,” she said.

Mikulski implied she was not satisfied with the Earth science and aeronautics portions of NASA’s 2009 request, pointing out that it funds ”only” five of 17 Earth-observing missions identified by the National Academy of Sciences last year as priorities for the decade ahead.

NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, meanwhile, would see its budget decline by $65 million under the president’s plan.

“In the United States of America, aeronautics will only be at a half a billion dollars,” she said. “Friends, that’s less than three days in Iraq.”

It was here two years ago that Mikulski first proposed giving NASA a $1 billion cash infusion to help the agency recover financially from the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia accident. Despite a bipartisan push spearheaded by Mikulski and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), the proposal died when the incoming chairmen of the House and Senate appropriations committees decided in late 2006 to keep most non-defense spending at that year’s level  rather than start 2007 with a pile of unfinished spending bills.

Mikulski renewed her push for the extra $1 billion last year and by early October had achieved a significant legislative victory with the Senate’s passage of the Commerce, Justice, Science spending bill.

“To everybody’s surprise we pulled the Mikulski Miracle and I got $1 billion in the Senate budget and we passed it over to the House,” she told the luncheon audience. “Well, that’s when the landing got rocky. And it got very rocky.”

Mikulski said the extra $1 billion ran into stiff opposition in the House, where key Democrats and Republicans balked at giving NASA so much additional money when other agencies were facing flat or declining budgets.

“Both parties rejected the billion dollars,” Mikulski said. “The Republicans had objections in terms of its fiscal costs and the Democrats saying ‘why are we funding the space program, we have a lot of other priorities,’” Mikulski said.

Mikulski said matters were further complicated when U.S. President George W. Bush demanded that Congress trim $22 billion from its omnibus 2008 spending bill or face a veto.

For the Commerce, Justice, Science portion of the bill — which includes NASA — that meant reducing the top line by $3 billion. “Man, was that a Rolaids moment, because we had already been very frugal in what we had sent forward,” she said. “We did a little nipping and we did a little tucking and at the end of the day we were able to survive.”

Congress wound up approving $17.3 billion for NASA for 2008 — about the same as the president’s request — but trimmed the budgets for a number of individual agency programs in order to keep Ares and Orion fully funded and to provide extra money for Earth Science and Aeronautics.

“So on balance we think we did pretty well,” she said.

In a brief interview after her speech, Mikulski said the prospects for getting an extra $1 billion for NASA through the Senate again this are “are about the same” as last year. “But if people would really rally for NASA and put it on the national radar screen, they’d be better,” she said.

While Congress has struggled recently to complete its annual spending bills, Mikulski said the Senate Appropriations Committee, at least, intends to finish its work before breaking for the general election in November.

“This isn’t like a year that we’ve ever had. We’re going to be ready. We don’t want” a continuing resolution, she said, referring to the stripped-down budget bill Congress passed for 2007 that kept most agencies — including NASA — funded at their 2006 levels.

Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), she said, has asked all the appropriations subcommittees to have their budget bills marked up and ready for consideration by the full committee by June 1. That in theory would give the Senate two months before the start of August recess to pass its 2009 budget bills.