The Senate has started its consideration of the FY 2008 Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Bill. During the first day of debate, the Senate agreed to add $1.0 billion to the NASA budget to restore funding that had been reallocated from the "Exploration Capabilities" and "Science, Aeronautics, and Exploration" accounts. Debate on the now $56 billion bill will continue when the Senate returns to Washington next week.
The $1 billion amendment had wide, bipartisan support. Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), and Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) were the sponsors of the bill, and were joined by Appropriations Subcommittee Ranking Member Richard Shelby (R-AL) and ten Democratic and Republican senators.
Mikulski told her colleagues:"The goals of the amendment are clear. It maintains our commitment to safe, reliable, and robust human spaceflight. It keeps us on track for the next reliable space transportation vehicle and maintains our commitment to scientific discovery." She recounted how after the Space Shuttle Columbia accident in 2003, NASA foraged funds from other accounts to repair and upgrade the safety of the remaining shuttles. These upgrades cost more than $2 billion. Added Hutchinson, "The accounts for NASA have been drained. We have drained from science, we have drained from the Hubble telescope, and we have drained from other aeronautics research to fund the Columbia accident [commission] report and safeguards, and we have not moved forward for the crew-return vehicle."
NASA moved almost $100 million from the science and aeronautics budget. Shelby described the result: "Science funding has been cut significantly, and programs not directly associated with the exploration vision [Moon, Mars and beyond] are being deferred, delayed, or canceled. By showing down cutting-edge science carried out by NASA, we are mortgaging our future. The foundation for technological leadership and the successes of tomorrow are built on the investments that we make in NASA today."
There is much consternation about what is now projected to be a five year gap between the retirement of the space shuttle system in 2010, and its replacement by new vehicles (Ares and Orion) in 2015. In the intervening years, U.S. astronauts would fly to the space station on Russian spacecraft. "This is not acceptable," said Mikulski. It is estimated that the additional funding provided by this amendment would cut two years off the replacement schedule. Senator Mel Martinez (R-FL) commented: "It behooves us, for the sake of our independence, our sovereignty, our ability to be in control and the destiny of this magnificent laboratory up in space, that we could accelerate the time where this gap was going to exist. It is going to be there no matter what we do, but we can shorten it. I believe if we shorten it by a couple of years, that would be in our best interests."
After about an hour of discussion, during which no one spoke against the amendment, Mikulski secured passage of the amendment by a legislative process known as unanimous consent. The position that the Bush Administration will take regarding this amendment is unknown; it has already threatened a veto of the less-costly House version of this bill.