House appropriators on the Science, State, Justice and Commerce Subcommittee would like to see NASA get more money for FY 2007 than the Administration's request, and are worried that developing nations might surpass the U.S. in space exploration capabilities. At a March 30 hearing, appropriators also raised questions about the need to cancel or defer some space and Earth science missions in order to fulfill international commitments to complete the space station, keep the shuttle flying until its retirement, and start development of its replacement, but they did not question that NASA should be doing all these things.
NASA's plan to limit the growth in space and Earth science to 1.5 percent in FY 2007 and one percent for the five years thereafter, thus reducing the projected expenditures in those areas by $3.1 billion through FY 2010, has caused consternation among the science community and many Members of Congress (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2006/034.html). Both Subcommittee Chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA) and Ranking Minority Member Alan Mollohan (D-WV) pointed out the proposed reductions to science and aeronautics research in their opening statements. "This is a very long list," Mollohan pointed out, of "cancelled, cancelled, delayed, cancelled" science programs that would have "a very big impact." NASA Administrator Michael Griffin explained that NASA's plans will require sacrifices "throughout the space community" over the next five years. He said that the FY 2007 request puts priority on keeping the U.S. commitment to complete the space station, preparing for the retirement of the shuttle and transition of NASA's workforce from shuttle to Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), and developing an architecture for human return to the Moon. "Regrettably," he said, this will curtail the rate of growth in NASA science programs, and force the delay or deferral of several missions.
Over the past several years, Griffin said, "we...have created an irrational exuberance" in expectations of science funding, allowing the space science community to believe that 5-7 percent growth year after year could continually be accommodated within "topline" growth of 2-3 percent for NASA as a whole. Acknowledging concerns from the science community that Research and Analysis (R&A) funding, which supports university researchers, may have been cut too drastically, Griffin said that NASA would ask its scientific advisory committees to conduct a review of the science priorities in early May, and "we will listen." However, he cautioned the committee that NASA's budget request "represents a careful balancing act," and strongly urged them to resist the temptation to "rob Peter to pay Paul" by shifting funds from the CEV and human exploration to NASA science missions. He argued that the gap in U.S. human access to space between the shuttle's retirement and operation of the CEV would be "far more damaging to the space program overall" than some loss of space and Earth science expertise. Human space flight capabilities, he said, are part of what "define a nation as a superpower."
Rep. Mark Kirk (R-IL) proposed that support for NASA's budget and mission would be far more widespread if the general public understood the progress that other nations, particularly developing nations, have made in spaceflight capabilities. "I think the Congress and the American people are ignorant...almost entirely" of how far along other countries are, he said. This theme was picked up by other committee members. Rep. Dave Weldon (R-FL) noted that between 2010 and 2014, the U.S. might have to rely on Russian Soyuz vehicles to sustain the space station, while Rep. Bud Cramer (D-AL) mentioned that the Chinese hope to reach the Moon by 2017, earlier than current U.S. plans to return humans to the lunar surface. In response to a suggestion by Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX) to hold a hearing to publicize this topic, Wolf declared that it was a good idea. "I have a concern at what I'm hearing here today," said Rep. Jose Serrano (D-NY). He cautioned that a space race with China could be "a dangerous road to take because it may not lead us where we want to go."
Several members questioned why NASA was not included as a component of the President's American Competitiveness Initiative. Griffin responded that the initiative focused funding on research areas that would have a short-term impact on competitiveness, while NASA science produced practical results on generational time scales, "if at all." Wolf also asked about science education efforts at NASA, and how they were coordinated with other federal science education programs. Griffin replied that NASA is "revamping our education program from top to bottom," with about $160 million budgeted directly for education, and a similar amount spent within its mission directorates. Wolf suggested a meeting of all federal agencies with K-12 science education programs for coordination purposes, but when reminded that the House Science Committee was holding a hearing on that topic at that time, he said, "maybe that's the best place to do it because I know [Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY)] cares."
Many members vowed to try to increase NASA's budget for fiscal year 2007. Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) asked how much additional funding NASA would need to accomplish the top science priorities of the National Academy of Sciences' decadal surveys. Griffin, defending the President's request, replied that NASA funding "is adequate to do those priorities...just not adequate to do them all at once." Wolf said, "I would like to see if we could find the money somewhere in our budget" to restore the projected growth in science and still maintain progress on the exploration initiative. He reiterated that the idea of a hearing on other countries' progress in space was "really important," saying "this really could be a Sputnik moment" that could "electrify" the public.