U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) has proposed raising NASA’s budget by $2 billion next year, sidestepping congressional spending limits by designating the one-time cash infusion “emergency” funding needed to help the U.S. space agency fully recover from the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.

Mikulski, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice and science subcommittee, said that while Congress approved $3 billion in emergency funding for NASA in the wake of the 1986 Challenger disaster, the agency has had to cover its post-Columbia expenses within its annual budgets at the expense of the rest of the agency’s programs.

“So we’ve had to forage [out of] NASA’s regular programs to do what Challenger got as an emergency chunk of bucks,” Mikulski told an audience of more than 500 people attending the Maryland Space Business Roundtable’s May 15 luncheon here.

Mikulski said she broached the topic of NASA funding with President George W. Bush during a late March visit to the White House to discuss U.S. technical and scientific competitiveness. She said she plans to pitch her $2 billion proposal during a follow-up meeting with White House staff.

“When I sit down with the White House tomorrow I am going to suggest strongly that we use the Challenger precedent and apply it to the Columbia accident,” Mikulski said. “And if they accept that and are willing to declare it an emergency, or give no objection if Congress chooses to do it, ladies and gentlemen we can come up with $2 billion and solve the problems we are facing today.”

Mikulski spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz said the senator’s May 16 meeting with White House congressional liaison staff was postponed due to a scheduling conflict and rescheduled for the following week.

Schwartz said Mikulski hopes to get the White House to buy in on her proposal before she starts pushing the idea among her Senate colleagues. “She would obviously like to have it,” Schwartz said May 17. “It’s still early in the process. Sen. Mikulski will continue to push the issue and will be looking at broadening support for it. The space program has always enjoyed bipartisan support and she wants to continue that tradition.”

During her luncheon speech, Mikulski also noted the importance of bipartisanship, saying lawmakers should “under no circumstances play politics with America ‘s space program.” However, she also said the $16.792 billion budget the White House has requested for NASA for 2007 is not enough to return the space shuttle to flight, complete the international space station and build the Crew Exploration Vehicle without harming the agency’s science and aeronautics programs.

Under the White House 2007 budget plan, NASA’s science and aeronautics spending would erode in the years ahead as the agency shifts more resources into keeping at least two of its three remaining space shuttles flying through the end of the decade while building new spacecraft and rockets meant to replace the shuttle and eventually carry astronauts to the Moon.

In legislation enacted last year, Congress endorsed NASA’s new space exploration agenda, but also called for the agency to maintain a “balanced set of space programs.” The legislation, the NASA Authorization Act of 2005, sought to help NASA achieve that balance by authorizing the White House to spend $17.9 billion on NASA in 2007, or just over $1 billion more than the White House asked for when it sent its budget request to Congress in February.

Since then a number of Republican and Democratic lawmakers have called for funding NASA at the higher authorized level. Mikulski’s $2 billion stratagem, however, has upped the ante significantly.

Mikulski’s proposal was greeted with skepticism even among ardent NASA supporters.

“Given all the constraints on the federal budget, it does not seem to me that a $2 billion increase for NASA is in the cards; rather, I suspect this is an opening gambit in the appropriations process to see if the NASA budget can be increased to anywhere near what the Congress authorized last December,” said John Logsdon, director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute. “It also seems to me that characterizing this as an emergency payment in reaction to the Columbia accident of three years ago is stretching the meaning of the word “emergency” a bit. But the basic point is valid — NASA needs more money to do all it is being asked to do.”

Mikulski made clear during her speech that finding any additional money for NASA would be a tough sell if lawmakers have to stay within the dollar limits that guide the drafting of the numerous spending bills Congress must pass each year to fund the federal government.

Designating the additional money NASA needs emergency spending, she said, is the way to go, as it would permit lawmakers to sidestep dollar limits guiding the drafting of spending bills.

Mikulski said she would have Congress immediately give NASA an additional $100 million in emergency funding to repair hurricane damage NASA facilities suffered in 2005 .

The rest of the $2 billion increase that Mikulski said NASA needs could be included in the regular NASA spending bill but set aside as emergency spending not subject to budget allocations, spending caps and other such limits. The Senate Appropriations Committee expects to take up a NASA spending bill in July.

Comments: bberger@space.com