House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) stated it well: “Either the nation is going to have to give NASA enough funding to meet the dual challenges of carrying out its current and planned missions and of revitalizing the agency’s human and physical capital, or the nation is going to have to agree on what it wants NASA to cut.”Acting for the nation at large, it will be the members of the House and Senate who will make these decisions. That process began this morning when the House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee marked up its version of the FY 2010 appropriations bill. Reports indicate that the subcommittee recommended $18.2 billion for NASA. The Administration requested $18.7 billion, which is an increase of 5.1 percent over the agency’s enacted FY 2009 appropriation of $17.8 billion.
Gordon’s comments came during one of three hearings on the NASA request that were held last month that provide the context for today’s appropriations markup. The members of the House and Senate appropriation and authorization committees shared the same concerns and asked basically the same questions of Acting NASA Administrator Christopher Scolese, whose reply to one member summed up the outlook for the future programs of the agency when he said “again, it comes down to the budget.”
There was not a single member of any of these committees - Democratic or Republican - who argued that the NASA request was too large for FY 2010. Instead, there was concern that the funding request was insufficient, particularly as it concerned FY 2011 and beyond, about which Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), chair of the Senate Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee said they were deeply troubled.
Gordon predicted that it would be “very difficult to make progress on a number of important programs” because of the proposed flat-funding of NASA’s budgets after FY 2010, and no one on either side of any of the witness table seemed to disagree. In a situation similar to that for the National Nuclear Security Administration, much attention is focused on the results of a pending external review. In the case of NASA, this committee, chaired by Norm Augustine, will conduct a review of U.S. human space flight plans. The House Science Committee’s Ranking Republican Member, Ralph Hall (R-TX) called this “a very pivotal year for our space program.”
All of the hearings revolved around several long-standing issues. Paramount among them is the five-year gap between the retirement of the space shuttle and its U.S. replacement, during which time American astronauts must depend on the Russian Soyuz for transportation to the space station. With this comes the pending reduction in the size of the workforce serving the shuttle, and accompanying transition and retention issues that were discussed at considerable length in a hearing of the Senate Subcommittee on Science and Space. Also of great concern is the ability of NASA to maintain its schedule for the development of a heavy lift vehicle to place humans above low earth orbit, with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) wondering if U.S. astronauts would still be able to return to the moon by 2020 under the projected outyear funding. There is continuing concern about the adequacy of funding for NASA’s aeronautics program, for which approximately flat funding was requested. The extent to which these problems might be resolved will become clearer next week when the full House Appropriations Committee approves and then releases its version of the FY 2010 funding bill.