As Democrats take charge of the U.S. Congress for the first time in more than a decade, NASA and its reinvigorated space exploration agenda will face new challenges.
While analysts do not foresee the new Congress dismantling the agency's plan to field new manned spacecraft systems and return to the Moon, they do expect Democrats to submit the U.S. space agency's space exploration plans to more scrutiny and use their greater say over federal spending to bolster NASA science and aeronautics programs hard hit in recent budgets.
"NASA should expect continued support of robotic and human space exploration beyond Earth orbit, balanced with an increased emphasis on providing benefits to taxpayers through Earth and space science and aeronautics," said Lori Garver, a prominent Democrat in space circles and a former senior NASA official who consults for DFI International here. "This support will likely be met with more vigorous oversight of operations plans, budget changes and programs that are experiencing technical problems, delays and cost overruns."
Traditionally, the most vigorous NASA oversight has been done by the House Science Committee. Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), the presumptive chair of that committee in the new Congress, said that would not change under his leadership.
"An important part of the Committee's agenda will be serious and sustained oversight of all of NASA's activities," Gordon said in a written response to questions from Space News. "In that regard, we will of course be examining the Administration's exploration initiative -- including its objectives, its schedule and funding, and the roles of international cooperation and the commercial sector --‑ to make sure the nation gets the best return on its investment in this important initiative."
Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), whose Boulder congressional district is home to Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp., the Southwest Research Institute and the National Weather Service's Space Environment Center, is expected to become chair of the House Science space and aeronautics subcommittee.
Udall, who has said he is committed to helping NASA maintain momentum on its space exploration goals without "hollowing out space and Earth science" or sacrificing aeronautics research, would replace Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), who frequently expressed concern about China sending astronauts to the Moon before the United States can make its return. Calvert, congressional sources and other political analysts said, may stay on the subcommittee as the ranking Republican now that his chances of getting a more coveted seat the House Appropriations Committee appears shot.
Consultant Bill Adkins of Adkins Strategies LLC, the science and aeronautics subcommittee's Republican staff director until this summer, said NASA should not see a dramatic difference between Gordon and current House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert, a moderate New York Republican who did not seek re-election this year.
"Boehlert and Gordon were largely coming from the same direction on NASA," he said. "Both were supportive of the [space exploration] vision but had questions and talked about
NASA being a balanced, multi-mission agency."
"House Appropriations is where NASA is going to have a trickier time because a Democratic chairman may come in with a different set of national priorities," Adkins said.
Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.) is expected to chair the House Appropriations Committee in the next Congress. As ranking Democrat, Obey attempted to cut $200 million from NASA's 2007 budget earlier this year and give it to local law enforcement programs. During a debate on an amendment that would have prevented NASA from spending any money on a manned Mars missions, Obey accused some of his colleagues as having "Mars fever."
Obey was also one of 15 House members to vote against the NASA Authorization Act of 2005 when it first came to the floor. That bill provided the first congressional endorsement of NASA's space exploration agenda and authorized the higher spending levels for the agency than the White House has requested. Analysts generally described Obey as NASA's biggest problem in the new Congress, given the combination of his new clout and past opposition to human spaceflight programs.
At the appropriations subcommittee level, where annual spending bills are drafted, NASA should find itself in more familiar -- and friendlier -- territory, analysts agreed.
The chairmanship of the House Appropriations science, state, justice and commerce subcommittee, which has jurisdiction over NASA, generally is expected to go to the current ranking Democrat, Rep. Alan Mollohan of West Virginia.
Mollohan's Fairmont, W.Va., district is home to NASA's Independent Verification and Validation facility.
Analysts said Mollohan's support of NASA is tempered by the congressman's liberal use of budget earmarks to direct federal dollars back home. Some of those earmarks, directed through non profit groups he helped start, came under scrutiny during his campaign. He left his post as the top Democrat on the House ethics committee in April amid questions about personal financial dealings he had with beneficiaries of earmarks he pushed through.
After winning his 13th term on Nov. 7, he was unapologetic about his use of earmarks, telling a local paper, the Times West Virginian, the next day he was "not going to change a bit."
Some analysts said Democratic leadership could pass over Mollohan when doling out chairmanships, but most felt he would get the job.
Mollohan's approach to earmarks, analysts said, stands in contrast to outgoing subcommittee chairman Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), who managed to keep NASA's budget earmark-free all the way through passage by the House this summer.
Other strong NASA supporters expected to remain on the House Appropriations Committee include Reps. Robert "Bud" Cramer (D-Ala.), Chet Edwards (D-Texas), Dave Weldon (R-Fla.), and John Culberson (R-Texas).
In the U.S. Senate, where the Democrats will have a slim one-vote majority over Republicans, NASA's budget will fall under the jurisdiction of Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), an ardent NASA supporter who is championing a $1 billion increase for the agency. Mikulski, another lawmaker not shy about earmarking bills, already has considerable say over the NASA budget as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee and has wielded that power in the past to the benefit of NASA science programs, particularly those managed by Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md., and the Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore.
Her influence will only grow when she becomes the subcommittee's chairwoman in the in the new Congress. Mikulski spokeswoman Melissa Schwartz said her boss "will continue to make NASA a top priority."
How much room to maneuver Mikulski and other NASA supporters on the subcommittee, including outgoing chairman Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), will have will depend largely on the budget allocations handed down by the full committee at the start the year.
Paul Carliner, the subcommittee's Democratic staff director, speaking at a space exploration seminar here several days before the election, said a Democratic Congress likely would push a slight increase in domestic discretionary spending and that, in turn, could translate into more money for NASA. "Clearly, if additional funding becomes available," he said, "one of the things we'd like to see is some of the funding cuts to science restored." Carliner also hinted that aeronautics could see an increase. "No other division of the agency has taken a bigger hit to its budget over the last 10 years than aeronautics," he said.
In addition to Mikulski and Shelby, other NASA supporters on the Senate Appropriations Committee include Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), and Mary Landrieu (D-La.). All three have significant NASA presence in their states.
NASA also has a strong supporter in Sen. Bill Nelson, the Florida Democrat favored to become chairman of the Senate Commerce science and space subcommittee, replacing Hutchison who is expected to stay on as the ranking Republican.
Nelson, whose state is home to NASA's Kennedy Space Center, flew aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia in January 1986 while a member of the House. Along with Hutchison, Nelson has been the Senate's most vocal critic of NASA's plan to retire the space shuttle before fielding its replacement, the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle. He and Hutchison pushed for, but did not get, a provision in the NASA Authorization Act of 2005 that would have prohibited NASA from retiring the shuttle before its replacement was ready to go.
This year's elections also returned to office another strong NASA supporter, Democrat Nick Lampson, who narrowly defeated write-in candidate Shelley Sekula-Gibbs to win the Houston-area seat vacated by ousted House Majority Leader Tom DeLay. Lampson was the ranking Democrat on the House Science space and aeronautics subcommittee until he lost his seat in 2004 in a congressional redistricting engineered by DeLay. Analysts said Lampson could be given a plum Appropriations Committee assignment to bolster his chances of winning re-election in a heavily Republican district.
With DeLay gone, NASA has yet to find a new political champion in the House with the same clout. Analysts, however, said NASA has cause for optimism if Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) beats out Rep. John Murtha (D-Penn.), a prominent Iraq war critic, to become House majority leader in the next Congress. Hoyer is closely allied with Mikulski and has paid heed to space interests in his state.
While the space community has no clear ties to Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), analysts said NASA and its contractors could find an in through Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), a close Pelosi associate who has been active on issues affecting the Mountain View, Calif.-based NASA Ames Research Center, located in her district.