Sunday, September 13, 2009

Potential uphill battle for NASA

Space advocates bracing for a legislative fight for billions more in funding

Stewart M. Powell
Washington Bureau

NASA supporters are bracing for an uphill battle to get the extra funding needed to take on missions more ambitious than visits to the international space station.

A high-level panel told President Barack Obama last week that the space program needs an infusion of about $3 billion more a year by 2014.

That may be a tough sell, even though the amount could be considered spare change in a fast-spending capital where the White House and Congress are on track to dole out nearly $4 trillion this year to finance federal operations, including bailouts for Wall Street firms, banks and automakers.

“The congressional agenda over the next year is going to be focused on cutting programs, not adding to them,” said Scott Lilly, a scholar at the Center for American Progress. Adding resources to the nation's $18.7 billion-a-year space program would require cuts in other areas, said Lilly, who doesn't think lawmakers are willing to make those trades.

Rep. Pete Olson, R-Sugar Land, the ranking Republican on the House subcommittee that has jurisdiction over NASA, said wrangling the additional $3 billion a year would be “an enormous challenge — but one I am prepared to win.” Added Olson, whose district includes Johnson Space Center: “NASA doesn't require bailout funds — it needs the promised level of investment that previous Congresses have endorsed.”

The 10-member panel of space experts led by retired aerospace executive Norman Augustine suggested extending U.S. participation in the $100 billion space station for five years, extending budgeting for the retiring shuttle fleet by six months, delaying plans for a 2020 return to the moon and extending the timeline for the next generation of manned spacecraft by two years at least until 2017.

But the experts warned in their 12-page preliminary report to Obama on Tuesday that “meaningful human exploration” would be possible only under “a less constrained budget ramping (up) to approximately $3 billion per year” in additional spending by 2014. Former astronaut Sally Ride, a member of the committee, forecast $27.1 billion in additional funds would be needed over the next decade — a 27 percent increase over the $99.1 billion currently planned.

Even before Obama publicly reacts to Augustine's report to map the next steps in the nation's manned space exploration, members of Congress are scrambling.

(Sally Ride is a maxed out contributor to the Obama for President committee)

Read the full feature HERE.

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