Without a separate vote or even a debate, House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) has managed to deliver to a delighted NASA enough money to forge ahead on a plan that would reshape U.S. space policy for decades to come.
President Bush's "Vision for Space Exploration," which would send humans to the moon and eventually to Mars, got a skeptical reception in January and was left for dead in midsummer, but it made a stunning last-minute comeback when DeLay delivered NASA's full $16.2 billion budget request as part of the omnibus $388 billion spending bill passed Nov. 20.
DeLay, whose newly redrawn district includes the Johnson Space Center, and NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe have all but claimed a mandate; but even with the money and parts of the project already up and running, the questions that once threatened to kill the initiative still remain largely unresolved.
What will it really cost? What NASA programs will be cut to fund it? How will other science agencies be affected? Instead of a debate and vote on the merits of the president's plan, the measure was adopted largely because DeLay threatened to scuttle the entire omnibus bill unless Bush got every nickel he requested.
"I wouldn't say we're critical of the moon-Mars program, but we are critical of the lack of clarity about the scientific benefits," said physicist Michael Lubell, spokesman for the American Physical Society, the nation's largest association of research physicists. "This is bound to be an extremely costly project, so what are we going to get from it?"
The responses are many: that humankind needs challenges; that robots will never be supple enough to take full scientific advantage of visits to other worlds; that if the United States doesn't do it, some other nation -- China, quite likely -- will. DeLay, a self-described "space nut," told Johnson Space Center employees a few days after the vote that "NASA helps America fulfill the dreams of the human heart."
And at a news conference the next day, O'Keefe said the omnibus bill embodied "as strong an endorsement as anyone could have hoped for the national space policy that the president articulated."
NASA's share amounted to 4.1 percent of the omnibus bill, and the space agency ended the year as one of the few non-security scientific agencies to get a raise for 2005, says the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Funding for the others was flat or fell.
Bush announced the space "Vision" to considerable fanfare Jan. 14, promising to "extend a human presence across our solar system," starting with a return to the moon by 2020 and eventual travel to Mars.
Lawmakers of both parties welcomed a new set of goals for a human spaceflight program traumatized and seemingly adrift after last year's loss of the space shuttle Columbia. Even today, the proposal finds few congressional detractors -- as an overall concept.
But the devil, now, as then, is in the details: "I support the president's initiative -- if it's paid for," said Rep. Bart Gordon (Tenn.), the Science Committee's leading Democrat. "I'm afraid we're setting ourselves up for a future train wreck."
Early in the year, O'Keefe tried to sell the proposal as a slow, steady initiative requiring a NASA budget increase in 2005 of only $800 million. It was the beginning of "a journey," he said, quoting from the Bush speech, "not a race."
But the plan, if carried out, would be the most ambitious space enterprise ever undertaken, and lawmakers wondered whether other programs would be scaled back to make room for it: Would spectacular science missions such as the robotic Mars rovers suffer? Or Earth science, astronomy or aeronautics?
O'Keefe did not satisfy his questioners, but while Bush's plan languished in Congress, NASA was moving ahead aggressively to implement it. O'Keefe created a new Office of Exploration Systems, headed by Associate Administrator Craig E. Steidle, a retired Navy rear admiral, test pilot and military procurement specialist.