The top Democrat on the House Science Committee says NASA faces a protracted fight for its budget and the future of space exploration, and that the attacks will come from the right and the left.
Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) told the audience at an Oct. 21 breakfast meeting of the Space Transportation Association that he expects conservative Republicans to press for savings from the NASA budget and some Democrats to push for NASA dollars to be spent on “problems here on Earth.”
Defending the NASA budget will be difficult, Gordon said, in part because the agency suffers from a credibility problem arising from years of broken promises and incorrect cost projections on programs like the international space station. On top of that, he said, U.S. President George W. Bush’s vision for returning to the Moon and going on to Mars is difficult to defend when funding gets tight. “Going to the Moon is just something that is so easy to slap at,” he said.
To counter those weaknesses, he urged the space community to do a better job of mobilizing lower tier suppliers to lobby Congress on behalf of the space agency’s agenda. He urged them to build a strong coalition to bolster NASA and do a better job of communicating NASA’s importance to the general public. Part of that coalition’s job will be to “explain that we are going to the Moon not just on a tourist expedition but that there are good reasons for it.”
“Even though I think we will get by this time, what we want to avoid is blood in the water,” said Gordon, noting that any cuts in NASA’s budget now would send the message that the agency is easy prey for those searching the federal budget waters for spending cuts.
“We are getting into an every-man-for-himself situation,” Gordon said. That environment , he said, makes cuts to the NASA budget over the next three to four years a “realistic scenario.”
When push comes to shove and the power of the president may be the only thing standing between NASA and significant budget cuts, Gordon said he is worried that Bush might not come through.
“I don’t think President Bush is a space guy when it comes down to it,” he said, citing the president’s apparent lack of interest in space issues while he was governor of Texas.
Several space industry officials who attended the breakfast said they were watching the coming federal budget clash with trepidation and planned to do as much as possible to avoid cuts to NASA’s budget, especially its space exploration spending.
“As a member of the Coalition for Space Exploration, it is critical that we heed his challenge to do a better job of communicating the benefits and relevance of space R&D to a broad public audience,” said one attendee.
Several sources at the breakfast expressed some surprise at Gordon’s call to bolster the use of suppliers to lobby Congress. “We already do everything he mentioned,” said one industry representative. “But we’ll keep pushing, because he’s right that people are going to come after NASA dollars.”