For NASA, the Road Looks Tougher

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The Nov. 2 elections that will put Republicans in charge of the U.S. House of Representatives come January have raised legitimate concerns that a NASA already struggling with too much on its plate will be spread even thinner in the coming years. Indeed, to the extent that the election outcome was a public reaction to the U.S. fiscal situation, there is every reason to be pessimistic.

Republicans campaigned on promises of fiscal restraint; Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), the presumptive speaker of the House, has pledged to roll back nondefense discretionary spending to 2008 levels. If that happens, NASA could see a budget drop of some $1.7 billion from the $19 billion that Congress authorized for 2011. Such a reduction would be disastrous for an agency that, among other things, is in the midst of overhauling its most expensive program — human spaceflight. NASA would be hard pressed to execute its current slate of programs even if its budget increases by $6 billion over the next five years as envisioned by U.S. President Barack Obama.

The good news is that Republicans have a history of supporting civil space, and lawmakers poised to take the chairmanships of House panels that oversee NASA hail from states that host agency centers. They include Reps. Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), the front runner to chair the House Appropriations Committee, and Ralph Hall (R-Texas), who’s in line to lead the House Science and Technology Committee.

In the Senate, which will remain in Democratic hands, NASA continues to enjoy strong support from both sides of the aisle. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA, has long been a staunch NASA supporter and will be a formidable obstacle should House Republicans target Earth science spending, as has happened in the past under similar circumstances. Her Republican counterpart on that panel is Sen. Richard Shelby of Alabama, who has never been shy about protecting the interests of NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in his home state. There is also Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who chairs the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation science and space subcommittee, which drafts NASA’s authorizing legislation.

Generally speaking, the Senate likely would oppose draconian cuts in federal spending, particularly with the U.S. economy still struggling, and it remains to be seen how hard the Republican-led House will be willing to fight for fiscal austerity. Cutting federal spending is a laudable and necessary goal, but it’s a lot easier said than done; even the toughest budget hawks have jobs in their districts to worry about.

But this doesn’t mean NASA’s budget won’t feel the impact of the election. NASA has often escaped the spending freezes imposed on other U.S. domestic spending accounts in recent years, but it will be much harder to increase the agency’s budget if other agencies start taking big hits. The message delivered by voters Nov. 2 is one that will not be lost on those facing re-election in 2012. That includes President Obama, who will be under great pressure to show that he, too, is serious about reining in spending, and the first big opportunity to do that will be the February rollout of his 2012 spending plan.

Interestingly, the president’s bipartisan deficit reduction commission on Nov. 10 included eliminating the $6 billion earmarked for the development of commercial human spaceflight systems — the centerpiece of Mr. Obama’s space shuttle replacement strategy — as one of a host of ideas for bringing the nation’s finances in order. This is only a draft plan that contains dozens of controversial ideas — the final recommendations are due to Congress Dec. 1 — but it is indicative of the times: It is extremely difficult right now to envision NASA’s budget growing at anything above the rate of inflation in the coming years.

Compounding the problem is soaring costs on NASA’s biggest project outside of human spaceflight, the James Webb Space Telescope. The latest cost estimate is $6.5 billion, $1.5 billion more than the estimate NASA gave Congress in February.

All of this means Congress and the White House could be facing some real decisions for NASA in the not-too-distant future. The 2010 NASA Authorization Act directs the agency to develop by 2016 a government-owned multipurpose crew vehicle as well as a heavy-lift rocket for deep space exploration, continue supporting the commercial spaceflight industry and conduct an extra space shuttle mission in 2011. That was a challenging mandate under the rosiest of budgetary scenarios; it looks preposterous now.

Congress’ insistence that the extra shuttle mission take place no earlier than June 2011 will cost hundreds of millions of dollars that are not in NASA’s budget plans; in all likelihood these funds will have to be drawn from accounts intended for follow-on crew transportation capabilities. Even without that problem, it is highly questionable that NASA will be able to develop its own crew transport capsule while fostering private space taxis. Finally, fielding a heavy-lift rocket with the capabilities and on the schedule specified in the authorization bill appears completely unrealistic under the budget scenario NASA now faces.

If NASA does not manage to once again dodge the budgetary bullet — and probably even if it somehow does — something’s going to have to give, and the choices are both difficult and unattractive. The question is whether Congress and the White House are prepared to make those decisions and live with them.