The Senate and House Armed Services committees are moving toward a $566 million cut in Air Force funds earmarked to pay NASA for military use of the space shuttle, wiping out one-fourth of the program's operating budget and adding to the agency's crisis.
If upheld by both houses, one National Aeronautics and Space Administration budget official said, the impact of the cut would be "incredible . . . . It's a little bit like not having enough money to pay your grocery bill."
The situation complicates NASA's struggle to recover from the Jan. 28 Challenger disaster and underscores the Pentagon's need for a reliable service to truck military satellites into space. With NASA's announcement this week that the next shuttle launch has been delayed an additional six months, until at least early 1988, America's national security needs in space are increasingly "close on the margins," according to an Air Force spokesman.
The Senate Armed Services Committee, looking for $20 billion to cut from fiscal 1987 Pentagon request under budget-reduction pressures of the Gramm-Rudman-Hollings act, cut the Air Force shuttle funds just before the July 4 recess, and the House Armed Services Committee is poised to follow suit.
The House panel staff has recommended the same cuts approved by the Senate committee, a staff member said, and approval is expected next week. "We haven't heard any good arguments against it," he said. "We're trying to just recognize the fact that the calendar has changed."
The Air Force has paid in advance for 10 shuttle launches still to come, according to committee sources.
NASA Administrator Dr. James C. Fletcher and Air Force Secretary Edward C. (Pete) Aldridge Jr. responded to the committee action late last week in a joint letter to some members of Congress. It asked them to restore the Air Force payment to NASA in the fiscal 1987 budget -- which would be for flight services in 1988 -- and let the agency make adjustments in the fiscal 1988 budget.
However, if the Air Force wants NASA to have the money, according to committee staff members, the service likely will have to find more than $500 million to cut somewhere else. "That would mean they're giving up about $1 billion to NASA," one staffer said. "At this point in the budget cycle, you're talking zero-sum game. We're not in an add-back mode."
Although some members of Congress contend that if NASA fails to render services the Air Force should not have to pay, NASA officials say their relationship with the Air Force is not that simple. In order to assure "a certain level of stability" the Air Force agreed to pay a year in advance for shuttle flight services, with adjustments to be made in later budget years, NASA budget official Malcolm Peterson said.
When NASA calculated its 1987 budget request for $1.5 billion for shuttle operations, it was counting on the Pentagon reimbursements plus around $200 million from foreign and commercial customers to meet its anticipated need of $2.2 billion, Peterson said. Now there is the possibility that almost none of the $700 million in reimbursements will come to NASA, and that the space agency will be left only with the money directly provided by Congress.
"When you're working with a number that large," Peterson said, "it invalidates all your budget planning."
With the shuttles grounded, the agency saves about $288 million, according to a House Appropriations Committee source. But that amount is almost entirely devoured by the fixes the agency now must make in the wake of the Challenger accident, he said.
According to NASA's Peterson and others, the agency's "people costs" -- the need to maintain a large, standing army of skilled professionals and technicians -- have shrunk only a little with layoffs since the accident. And the agency had already ordered hardware for the Air Force shuttle flights, such as fuel tanks, which must be paid for. Meanwhile, an Air Force spokesman said, the health of the nation's military operations in space is more than ever dependent on a series of "ifs."
"If the satellites we have already in orbit continue to operate, if we return to launching Titans early next year as predicted, and if the shuttle flights are not delayed beyond two years," he said, "if all those ifs work, then we probably are not as healthy in some areas as we'd like to be -- but we should be okay."
Launch pads damaged by the April 18 explosion of a Titan 34D missile at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California are expected to be repaired by fall, and another launch of the unmanned expendable rocket is likely by early next year, Air Force officials have said. The Titan fleet has been grounded in the wake of that and an earlier Titan explosion.
While unmanned rockets can carry some military cargoes aloft, certain heavy payloads can be launched only on the shuttle. In the future, he said, the payloads will be designed so they fit either.
In planning the space program recovery with NASA, the Air Force had already included a possible two-year downtime for the shuttle fleet, the spokesman said. With that delay confirmed by this week's official announcement, he said, "The backlog of critical Defense Department payloads will grow from about 15 to 21 by the time of the first shuttle launch."
If nothing else goes wrong, he said, "our plan should allow us to fully recover by the early to mid-1990s."