Conflict over NASA spaceflight program complicates funding
Sunday, September 19, 2010; 12:09 AM
NASA's human space program, long the agency's biggest public and congressional asset, has become instead its biggest headache.
As never before, NASA watchers say, an agency that generally is funded and directed through White House and congressional consensus has become the focus of a brutal, potentially crippling and politically topsy-turvy battle for control that is likely to come to a head next week.
NASA politics have always defied labels. But now a series of unlikely alliances and negotiating positions have left Congress in an especially difficult bind, with the distinct possibility that the fiscal year will end this month without an approved 2011 budget. The result, congressional negotiators and observers say, would be layoffs and a very unpredictable agency future.
A major front in the contest of wills has been funding for commercial rocket and spacecraft companies that can potentially provide inexpensive transport services to the international space station in the years ahead.
President Obama proposed a big boost for that effort in February, initiated under President George W. Bush, but has gotten only tepid support from Democrats until recently and almost universal opposition from Republicans. The House bill awaiting action would give twice as much money to Russia for transporting astronauts and cargo to the space station as it would give to U.S. companies working to build that capacity.
The Senate did pass a compromise authorization NASA bill before the August recess that provided far more funds for commercial spaceflight, although it still halved Obama's request. The bill directed the agency to instead immediately build a new heavy-lift rocket that can take astronauts to deep space by early 2017.
In doing so, it required the agency to design the project in a way that will benefit certain aggrieved companies and NASA centers - writing the kind of congressional technical blueprint that NASA administrators have long warned about. Nonetheless, the administration has thrown its support behind the bill.
At the same time, NASA is still spending $200 million a month on the Constellation human space program initiated under Bush. A blue-ribbon panel convened by Obama and headed by former Lockheed Martin chairman Norman Augustine concluded last year that Constellation had been underfunded from the start and would not be completed in time to perform some of its intended missions. Obama's intention to scrap part of the Constellation program, which has already cost taxpayers $10 billion, is what outraged many in Congress to begin with.
A leader of the effort against the Obama plan has been Michael Griffin, the head of NASA under Bush. Griffin has been on the Hill regularly in past months arguing in favor of keeping the full Constellation program, and he has been especially influential in the House, where a Science and Technology subcommittee passed a bill before recess restoring funds to Constellation.
House panel vote delayed
A full House committee vote on the bill was put off at the last minute because, congressional sources say, it would have faced sure death in the Senate. Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) had cobbled together a complex compromise bill that passed by unanimous consent - a procedural move that allows any single senator to kill the bill later if it incorporates significant House changes.
If Congress does not pass a new NASA budget by Sept. 30, congressional staffers say, contractors will begin laying off workers. In addition, the agency could lose out on some of the $3 billion budget increase over three years proposed by the administration.