Close Timing: Senate Action Clears Way for Final NASA, NIST, NSF Funding Bill

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Publication date: 
12 November 2009

Last Thursday, after many weeks of delay, the Senate leadership succeeded in clearing the way for the full Senate to consider the FY 2011 Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Bill.  By a vote of 71 to 28, the Senate passed this bill and appointed its conferees to a House-Senate conference that will write the final version of H.R. 2847.  The vote on this bill providing funding for NASA, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and the National Science Foundation comes none-too-soon, as the Senate takes up the health care bill next Monday, which is expected to occupy almost all of the Senate’s time and attention.

The parameters for the three agencies’ FY 2010 budgets were set in the House and Senate versions of H.R. 2847.  Total NSF funding in the two bills is similar: the House bill  has a 6.6 percent increase; the Senate a 6.9 percent increase (the request was for an 8.5 percent increase.)  NASA funding would increase by 2.4 percent in the House bill and 5.1 percent in the Senate bill (the request was a 5.1 percent increase.)  The difference in the two bills for total NIST funding is significant: the House would reduce funding by -4.6 percent, while the Senate bill has a 7.3 percent increase (the request was for a 3.3 percent increase.)

While the House has not named its conferees, staff on the two appropriations subcommittees are working to resolve differences in the two versions of the $64 billion bill.  When the final bill (or conference report) comes back to both floors it will be for an up-or-down vote; amendments will not be permitted.  Since the House passed its version of the bill in June by a vote of 259 to 157, the conference report should pass without difficulty when it comes back to both chambers.

The Senate debate on the legislation was quite extensive, with considerable discussion about NASA’s human space flight program.  There was also debate about an unsuccessful amendment offered by Senator Tom Coburn (R-OK) to prevent National Science Foundation funds from being used for the Political Science Program in the Division of Social and Economic Sciences of the Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences.  The importance of NIST research was mentioned several times by different senators.

The debate offers important insight into the thinking of several key “space senators” (as self-described by Barbara Mikulski (D-MD)) about NASA’s human space flight program.  All of the senators support human space flight, signaling their opposition to any move to substantially change the thrust of the agency’s programs.  The first senator to comment was Richard Shelby (R-AL) the subcommittee’s Ranking Republic Member, who told his colleagues:

“As NASA moves toward retiring the shuttle and leaving the Nation without our own human launch vehicle, I believe we must continue to develop our own capabilities, not only for missions to the space station but for future expeditions as well.  While I commend the Augustine    Commission for their hard work, I find many of the aspects proposed in their summary report to be unsatisfactory and perhaps disappointing.  I am baffled by NASA’s path forward on the Constellation Program.  This program is built on a foundation of proven technologies using existing capabilities and infrastructure.  The Ares I team will soon launch the first test flight, and the groundwork for the Ares V heavy lift vehicle is well underway.  And yet, instead of simply providing Constellation with funds to move forward, it is delaying the current mission while seeking to have a do-over on plans that have been authorized by both a Republican and Democratic Congress.  NASA and this administration should never forget that the support of Congress will still be necessary to authorize and provide funds as we move forward.  Given the challenges and high cost of access to space, I agree that it is beneficial for NASA to look at all viable options that could be provided by U.S. industries to support operations on the International Space Station and future exploration.  However, we must do so, I believe, in a realistic way. NASA must support the program that has the greatest likelihood of success.  The benefits that our society has gained from the human spaceflight program are immeasurable. Almost every facet of our lives that we know today has been touched by discoveries with human spaceflight.  Beyond the direct tangible benefits, there is also the intangible benefit that comes with knowing that America is leading the world in discovering and exploring new frontiers.  I will not support any future NASA budget request that does not have a robust human exploration program.  It must be a program that inspires, yet is also a program grounded in what is possible and not wishful thinking.  If we no longer prioritize space exploration, we can be certain that others on this planet will.  A number of the findings by the Augustine Commission would guarantee that other nations, such as Russia, China, and India, will be waving to us as they fly by the space station on their way to the Moon and other planets if we are not careful.  We cannot cede our leadership in space, and we must have a viable human space exploration program.  As we are losing global market shares in most industries, we are still the world leader in human spaceflight.   I will not support a NASA that squanders that lead, and I hope the Senate will not. Simply put, if that were to happen, I would not support a visionless NASA, and I do not believe the Congress would.”

Subcommittee chairwoman Barbara Mikulski managed the bill on the Senate floor, making several comments about NASA during the two different periods during which the bill was considered.  Speaking of the House appropriators’ decision not to fully fund the request for the exploration program pending the Augustine  report, she said:

“This bill also funds our space program: $18.7 billion for NASA.  In the space program, we don’t agree with the House strategy; we agree with the White House strategy.  The House strategy includes $500 million for the NASA exploration program.  We believe we need to meet our obligations to fully fund the space shuttle and the space station.  For the space shuttle, we need to make sure we keep our astronauts safe and our space station is able to continue the work we have begun.  We also need to invest in the next generation of space vehicles at $3.6 billion.     It is very important we meet our obligations, our international obligations, as well as our obligations to our astronauts and to our Earth-bound scientists.  However, if you meet those scientists, they are not bound by Earth very much.  They are continually breaking barriers.  We know the House withheld money while waiting for the Augustine report.  Well, we have the Augustine report.  We know where the President wants to go.  We know what the key advisers in the astronaut community have recommended to us – the gallant leaders from the past, such as Buzz Aldrin and John Glenn, to the most contemporary right now.”

Senator Robert Bennett (R-UT) also commented on the Augustine report:

“NASA is at a very difficult crossroads right now in determining the future of human space flight, and I would like to talk about that.  NASA is in the process of deciding where to put its full support and funds – whether it should be behind the current Constellation Program or whether it should change course and go in another direction.  The Augustine Commission has announced some recommendations and described them both but leaves it up to NASA to make the decision as to where it will go.  I am very concerned NASA will agree with those recommendations that will relate to access to the International Space Station and will affect low-Earth orbit in these difficult budgetary times.  We have just finished the space station.  So the time comes now to decide how to use it to its greatest advantage.  The space station was built with the shuttle program, and it has always will be retired next year.  After that happens, we will be relying upon Russia to get our astronauts into space.   The original plan was that once the shuttle was retired, the next vehicle to get us into space would be the Ares I.  That is the pivotal point where the decision has to be made: Shall we go ahead with Ares I?  I am very concerned that NASA may want to divert precious resources from the Ares I program in the hope that the commercial space industry can fill the void.  Well, it is disconcerting to me because we have a successful track record of the Ares program but a less than desirable record of the commercial space industry.  We have invested over 4 years and $6 billion in the Ares I and Orion programs, and it is on track.”

In later extensive remarks, Mikulski again spoke of  the Augustine report, and the reasons for space exploration:

“We have the Augustine report, on which there has been a hearing, and our bill, the CJS [Commerce, Justice, Science] bill, we fully fund the reliable [space] transportation system that would be developed by our government.  If the President were to change that, that would be a new direction and a new appropriation on which there would be tremendous debate and discussion.”

She later said:

“But I only want to reiterate how, when we work together, it is bipartisan, it is in the interests of our country, it is about the stars and the galaxies and the planets, but it is also about developing that new technology that creates the new jobs.”

Another senator who is keenly interested in NASA, Bill Nelson (D-FL), reviewed the current and last administrations, saying:

“What we know is, over the course of the last several years, the Office of Management and Budget and the White House have not given adequate resources to those of us in this Chamber who want a vigorous human space program.  We simply, over the last several years, have not been able to get the resources we need for NASA to do everything it has been asked to do, with the result that NASA is now at a crossroads.”

Later he said:

“But no matter how much [money] we find by scraping the bottom of the barrel, it is still going to come down to one thing: It is going to be the President’s decision.  If we remember, similar to President John Kennedy before him, a President has to decide and has to commit the resources.  If this President will do it, it will commit the space program that will keep America a global leader in science and technology.”

Another issue which attracted attention was an attempt - ultimately unsuccessful - by Senator Coburn to prohibit the National Science Foundation from spending money on its political science program.  In explaining his amendment, Coburn said:

“So the political scientists in the country, those who get this money, $91.3 million over the last 10 years that we have doled out to political scientists, that $91 million could have gone to the study of biology or chemistry or pharmaceutical science or fields of endeavor such as micronutrients or cellular metabolism or genetic manipulation so we can cure a disease.  Instead, where do they spend the money? Campaigns and elections, electoral choice systems, political change, domestic conflict, party activism, political psychology, and political tolerance.”

Later Coburn said:

“We are going to increase NSF’s budget in this bill 8 percent, the National Science Foundation. It is the one we ought to be increasing 12 or 15 percent, but it ought to be on real science, on pure science, on science that has an outcome we can measure that is not related to the observation of common fact but is new research that will derive great benefits for the people of this country.”

No other senator spoke in favor of Coburn’s amendment.  Mikulski used strong language in describing her opposition to his amendment:

“I oppose, as you can see, the amendment of the Senator from Oklahoma.  He wants to eliminate $9 million from the political science program at the National Science Foundation.  I don’t like targeting an individual science area.  Today it might be political science.  Another Senator might target biology.  Remember how we stifled science under the gag rules and gag guidelines of stem cell research?  Also, I don’t like trivializing academic research and academics, that somehow or another there is worthwhile science and then there are others that can be minimized or trivialized.”

She later said:

“This amendment is an attack on science.  It is an attack on academia.  We need full funding to keep America innovative, and I urge my colleagues to vote no on this amendment.”

Mikulski’s colleagues agreed with her, voting 36 yes to 62 no votes in opposition to the Coburn amendment.