Doubts about the United States’ political will to return astronauts to the Moon by 2020 were aired during a May 14 panel discussion here organized by the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

The panel, which included a senior congressional aide, a former NASA associate administrator and a professor of public policy, said the Vision for Space Exploration laid out by President George W. Bush in January 2004 could be in trouble if the underlying goals are not embraced by lawmakers and the next president.

Chuck Atkins, chief of staff to Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chairman of the House Science and

Technology Committee, said the problems facing NASA as it sets out to build new spacecraft capable of carrying astronauts to the Moon, Mars and beyond are mostly financial.

Noting that the U.S. space agency already is facing a five-year gap between the planned retirement of the space shuttle in 2010 and the debut of a replacement system, the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and Ares 1 rocket, Atkins questioned whether NASA could afford to keep those efforts on track, never mind the additional investment required to go to the Moon.

“It is not clear whether the funding is going to allow the vision to proceed anywhere near the schedule laid out in 2004,” Atkins said.

The problem, Atkins said, begins with the White House, which in 2004 proposed three straight years of higher-than-inflation funding increases to jump-start NASA’s efforts, but then failed to follow through.

“Each year since then … [President Bush] actually requested less in the budget than he said it was going to cost to do the vision and the other missions,” Atkins said. “That’s not exactly a ‘national imperative’ sort of message.”

While Congress endorsed the Vision for Space Exploration in the 2005 NASA Authorization Act, the legislation also called for the space agency to maintain robust investments in science and aeronautics. To enable such a balanced program, the legislation authorized spending about $1 billion more per year on NASA than either the White House has seen fit to request or Congress has been willing to appropriate.

The White House’s 2008 budget request to Congress seeks $17.3 billion for NASA, a 3 percent increase over what the president had sought for 2007 and 6 percent more than what the agency actually received.

Several lawmakers have again called this year for funding NASA above the White House request. Sens. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), for example, have renewed their pledge to fight for an additional $1 billion or more for NASA this year.

Meanwhile, with the House and Senate appropriations committees expected to begin drafting spending bills in June, the chief executives of

more than 20

NASA contractors

sent a letter to 22 key congressional leaders May 11 endorsing an $18.7 billion budget for the agency for 2008.

To understand the situation NASA faces as it tries to win congressional support for its space exploration goals, Atkins said it is useful to think of lawmakers organizing into several “fictional caucuses.” NASA’s strongest base of support comes from what he called the “parochial interest caucus,” which consists of lawmakers like Mikulski, Hutchison and others with a significant NASA or contractor presence in their states or districts. Atkins said these lawmakers, while in many instances “deeply and personally committed to space,” face perennial opposition from what he described as the “alternative priorities caucus” – a group prone to attack NASA as an expensive luxury compared to, for example, programs aimed at helping the poorly housed, ill-fed and uninsured.

In between these two extremes, Atkins said, lies the “lukewarm caucus,” whose members like the idea of the United States maintaining its edge in space exploration but are not exactly passionate about the topic. “They can take it or leave it,” Atkins said. “These are members you can’t quite count on.”

Atkins also said it is not yet clear whether Congress will have the “fiscal ability and will” to fund the Vision for Space Exploration in the face of budget deficits and war.

Howard McCurdy, a space historian

and professor of public administration and policy at

American University here, said a presidential mandate in no way guarantees that a space initiative will be sustained. McCurdy dismissed as myth the notion that “if advocates of space exploration can make the president’s mouth move, then great events will transpire.”

He said President John F. Kennedy, after calling in 1962 for the United States to land astronauts on the Moon within the decade, was having second thoughts by the time he was assassinated the following year. McCurdy questioned whether Project Apollo would have succeeded had Lyndon B. Johnson not been determined to make the Moon part of Kennedy’s legacy.

McCurdy nevertheless said he thinks NASA will be permitted to stay on the trajectory, if not the timetable, set by the Vision for Space Exploration so long as funding for the agency remains around $16 billion to $17 billion annually – a level, he said, that Congress and the public have proven willing to support.

Lori Garver, a consultant who served as NASA’s associate administrator for policy and plans from 1999 to 2001, said Congress historically has made only minor adjustments to NASA’s budget. But she added that there are signs this could change.

“Congress really doesn’t change the NASA budget much more than 2-3 percent. They never make huge shifts,” she said. However, “I do see that changing a bit,” she said.

predicted that the attention being paid to global climate change could have big implications for NASA, which today spends less than 10 percent of its budget on Earth science. A 10-year-plan for Earth science published by the National Research Council earlier this year said the Earth Observing System that NASA has spent over a decade building and deploying is in danger of collapse without a significant reinvestment. Democrats in Congress, including Atkins’ boss, have seized on the report’s findings to argue for more funding for Earth science.

“This could be a refocusing event that could lead to a reshaping of NASA’s budget,” Garver said, explaining that Congress could either direct NASA to spend more money on Earth science or shift responsibility for the program – and the money that goes with it – to another agency.

“Congress could easily decide that human space

flight should continue, but at a more moderate pace,” she said, echoing a concern of some space exploration advocates that NASA will field a space shuttle replacement only to find it lacks the political support to take the next steps.

McCurdy said it would not be out of character for NASA to get so bogged down building and flying Ares 1 and Orion that it defers its more outward-bound ambitions and uses the new spacecraft strictly for

travel to and from the international space station.

“NASA has an amazing ability of taking means and turning them into ends,” he said.