Few hearings on science and technology budget requests have revealed a greater gap between what an agency head and Members of Congress would like to do and the money available to do it than this week's Senate appropriations subcommittee hearing on the NASA FY 2007 request.
While last Wednesday's hearing lasted only a little more than an hour, it was more than enough time to highlight the current and looming money shortage confronting NASA. Chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) opened the hearing by explaining that the agency's FY 2007 budget would increase around 3% under the request, but then quickly added, "While this is a significant increase, there are a number of programs slated for decreases that are troubling. Specifically, funding for aeronautics and education have been cut, and science is being shortchanged with little hope of funding in future years." He added, "we are traveling down a tenuous path."
The subcommittee's Ranking Minority Member, Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) agreed. She called it "a difficult year for NASA," and later said the science request was not what she had hoped for, saying "we need a robust science mission." Mikulski summarized the situation well, saying that NASA was being asked to do "too much with too little money."
The senators got no argument from NASA Administrator Michael Griffin. The budget sent to Congress earlier this year added almost $3.9 billion to previous projections through 2010 to complete the Space Station (counting shuttle flights.) Explained Griffin: "There is no ‘new money' for NASA's top line budget within the budget projections available given our Nation's other pressing issues, so, working with the White House, NASA provided sufficient funds for the Space Shuttle and ISS programs to carry out their missions by redirecting funds from the Science and Exploration budgets." After outlining the need for priority setting, Griffin told the senators: "The plain fact is that NASA simply cannot afford to do everything that our many constituencies would like the Agency to do."
Echoing what he said at the March House appropriations hearing on the NASA request (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2006/047.html), Griffin asked Shelby and Mikulski to resist the temptation to shift money into the science program from the shuttle/space station budget. The result would delay the Crew Exploration Vehicle intended to replace the space shuttle, lengthening the projected four-year gap between the retirement of the shuttle and the flying of the CEV. Despite budget reductions, he said that the science program was still "very robust," stressing that major science missions would not be canceled but might be delayed.
Mikulski pressed Griffin about this four-year transportation gap and the space station, asking "are we going to use the station?" "Is this going to be a techno-whoops?" she asked, Griffin replying, "I hope not." Griffin is committed to assembling the station for a six-person crew. But he acknowledged the four-year gap before the Crew Exploration Vehicle will be available to take that crew to the station, holding out the possibility of private or international space vehicles. Mikulski responded that there were "a lot of ifs" in that scenario, to which Griffin agreed. "I wonder where we are going here?" said Mikulski. Could NASA reduce the four-year gap, she asked. Griffin replied a CEV could be available by 2011 by taking money from other NASA accounts. "I don't know if we could even contemplate that," said Mikulski, asking Griffin for a written explanation.
At this point Chairman Shelby interjected: "It's obvious we need more money for NASA" he said. Where that money would come from in this and future years is unknown.