Space exploration proponents regroup to fight for resources
The first round of the expected fight between congressional supporters of NASA's space exploration programs and the advocates of more terrestrially focused efforts was won easily by the earth science enthusiasts. But the upcoming rounds might get a bit tougher.Cuts in manned space activities in the omnibus fiscal 2007 appropriations continuing resolution and recent complaints by leading Democrats about reduced funding for earth science and global warming research in President Bush's fiscal 2008 budget have led manned space supporters to express their concerns about the fate of Bush's 2004 "vision" for space exploration.Those concerns appeared to be justified by the House Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee's approval of its $53.6 billion funding bill last week.Although the measure was $2.3 billion over the president's request, nearly all the extra money went to law enforcement, general science and research into global warming.The relatively minor increases in NASA funding went to earth science programs, aeronautics research, education and restoring sensors to monitor climate change that had been cut from the National Polar-Orbiting Operational Satellite System, which is being developed.Space exploration would receive the president's requested amount, even though manned space supporters said that amount would delay development of the Orion crew exploration vehicle and the Ares booster, which are to replace the aged Space Shuttle.NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has warned that, with current funding levels, the Orion-Ares system will not be operational until five years beyond the planned 2010 retirement of the shuttle.That would force the United States to depend on Russia or other countries for manned space flight, including support of the International Space Station.The Commerce-Justice-Science Subcommittee approved the appropriations bill on a voice vote without any amendments offered. But a fight over those funding priorities is likely when the House Appropriations Committee takes up the bill.The full committee includes a number of ardent space flight supporters, including Reps. Dave Weldon, R-Fla., who represents the Kennedy Manned Space Center; Bud Cramer, D-Ala., whose district includes the Marshall Space Flight Center, and several members each from California and Texas, which have NASA facilities or aerospace interests.Weldon has fought -- unsuccessfully so far -- to reverse the cuts in space exploration funding and is expected to try again.The prospect for more NASA funding in the Senate is not clear.When Senate Appropriations Chairman Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., released the fiscal 2008 subcommittee allocations Thursday, Commerce-Justice-Science got a total of $54.4 billion, an increase of $3.2 billion above Bush's request.Given the priorities expressed by Senate Democratic leaders, it is likely that the majority of those extra funds would go to the kinds of programs boosted by the House bill.But Senate Commerce-Justice-Science Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Senate Commerce Space, Aeronautics and Related Sciences Subcommittee ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, have announced plans to reintroduce a proposal they offered last year to add $1 billion to NASA funding.The extra money would be proposed as "emergency" funding to cover the cost of returning the shuttle to flight after the 2003 Columbia disaster and for repairing NASA facilities damaged by Hurricane Katrina.Mikulski also called for a "space summit" with the president, similar to a session she attended with President George H.W. Bush 17 years ago.Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who chairs the Senate Commerce Space Subcommittee, said he would support Mikulski's proposal if it provides the $400 million in fiscal 2008 that Griffin said was needed to get the Orion-Ares program back on track, an aide said. Nelson is the only former astronaut in Congress, having flown as a payload specialist on the 24th flight of Space Shuttle Columbia in January 1986.The shuttle replacement also would need $800 million extra the two following years to reduce the period of time the United States would be without a manned space vehicle, the aide added.But the House Science panel aide said he was "not sure that would fly" in the House. And even if that money were added, "it's not clear that it would go to space exploration" because of the needs for other science and technology programs, he noted.