NASA Supporters Fear Bush May Cut Space Plan

By Guy Gugliotta
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 29, 2006

President Bush has finally won endorsement of his "Vision for Space Exploration" from a once-skeptical Congress, but supporters now fear the administration is backing away from its own initiative to send humans back to the moon and then on to Mars.

For at least three months, the White House Office of Management and Budget and NASA have struggled to find a way to make up a budget shortfall of between $3 billion and $5 billion and perhaps more, in the troubled space shuttle program -- and to do so without inflating overall space spending well beyond the $16.5 billion that NASA has this year.

Congress last month unanimously passed a bipartisan bill -- which Bush signed -- endorsing the vision for the first time and urging the president to fund NASA for $17.9 billion in 2007 and $18.7 billion in 2008.

Lawmakers gave several reasons for embracing a program they had widely criticized after Bush announced it in early 2004, but all cited as a contributing factor the arrival last year of new NASA Administrator Michael D. Griffin, a blunt-spoken space scientist and engineer.

"He is very, very competent and knows how these things work," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.), who heads the Senate Commerce subcommittee on science and space and is a key player in the space debate. "If he comes back to us and says there's a need for more money, I think he can get it."

But the question now being asked on Capitol Hill is whether Bush will ask for enough money to keep the vision on track when the administration rolls out its 2007 budget Feb. 6, or whether he will shortchange the shuttle program or cripple the new exploration initiative or both. Bush has said he intends to freeze discretionary spending unrelated to national security for the next five years.

Shortchanging the space budget, lawmakers said, should not be an option. "This is a period of transformation," said Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Science subcommittee on space and aeronautics. "We are at the dawn of a new space age, and we have to do it right."

Industry and congressional sources said the administration has abandoned an early OMB proposal to slash the number of planned shuttle flights by more than half, but hemmed in by other budget priorities, especially the war in Iraq, it still appears unwilling to fund a full slate of 19 flights.

The sources said the administration may also let the planned deployment of the next generation spaceship slip to 2014. This was the original date proposed by Bush, but Griffin said last year he expects to fly the new "crew exploration vehicle" by 2012. That would cut to two years the "gap" that will open after the shuttle is retired in 2010, leaving the United States with no human spaceflight capacity.

These sources declined to be identified by name because they either were not authorized to speak for their bosses or did not want to insert themselves in the ongoing budget debate. They agreed, however, that Congress has "let the administration know loud and clear" that it is time "to indicate whether it intends to stand behind the vision," as one source said.

"The ball is in their court, and if they come in low on the budget, we will have a struggle," added Rep. Bart Gordon (Tenn.), the House Science Committee's senior Democrat. "This is the right thing for the country and the right priority. I'm not sure it's a high priority for [Bush] or OMB."

NASA refused to discuss its plans before the budget is made public, but Griffin spokesman Dean Acosta said, "The administration is fully supporting NASA and has done so since the president made the announcement two years ago for the Vision for Space Exploration."

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