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."
Congress has always had doubts. Bush's Jan. 14, 2004, speech called for a revamped spaceflight program to return humans to the moon by 2020 and eventually send them to Mars, all of this to be accomplished without dramatic increases in NASA's budget or changes in its portfolio.
The vision's cornerstones were the space shuttle's return to flight after the Columbia tragedy, completion of the international space station, and development of the new exploration vehicle to take humans to the moon and beyond.
Bush, however, has seldom spoken of the initiative since the announcement, a reticence that caused Congress to question his commitment. Lawmakers were also concerned about a lack of details to flesh out the proposal and were generally wary because of NASA's history of killing new spaceflight schemes in infancy.
But plans for the exploration vehicle moved forward quickly after Griffin's arrival in April, and he won lawmakers' support for the vision after he all but promised the shuttle would fly a servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope and suggested the exploration vehicle would be ready by 2012.
Other problems were not so easily resolved. Congress refused to let Griffin cut NASA's aeronautics programs this year and is worried that aeronautics, space science and the rest of the agency's portfolio would be "cannibalized" to pay for the vision.
Then, in early November, Griffin told a congressional hearing that NASA's earlier estimates on the vision's cost had left the shuttles underfunded by "$3 billion to $5 billion." The fleet is grounded while engineers seek a way to keep the external fuel tank from shedding foam insulation during launches. Plans call for flights to resume in May.
Industry and congressional sources said Griffin's acknowledgment of the shortfall was accompanied by news leaks that OMB was proposing to cut the number of shuttle flights to between eight and 11, retiring one of the three orbiters and reducing the shuttle workforce to free up money for the exploration vehicle.
Hutchison and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), representing the two states with the largest involvement in human spaceflight, led Senate efforts to stop this move, but sources said the heavy lifting was done by then-House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), whose district includes the Johnson Space Center. The sources said DeLay met separately late last year with Bush and Vice President Cheney to make the case.
"DeLay said that in his judgment the Congress would not stand by a unilateral decision by the administration to walk away from the space shuttle and the space station," said one source familiar with these talks.
DeLay did not return phone calls seeking comment, but he was the instigator of a sharply worded Dec. 9 letter signed by himself and 35 colleagues warning Bush not to contradict "your own stated priorities" in the space program.
Days later, Congress unanimously passed its space bill, stipulating full funding for the shuttle and the exploration vehicle for 2007 and 2008, and forbidding the administration to use aeronautics and science money to pay for the vision.
Such bills, which authorize programs but do not appropriate money, are partly wish lists to be shaped later in spending bills, but the legislation left little doubt that lawmakers now regard Bush's vision as crucial to U.S. space policy.
"The bill is an affirmation of support," said John Logsdon, director of George Washington University's Space Policy Institute. "But it's also a challenge to the administration to pony up for the transformational space program it outlined two years ago."