CAPE CANAVERAL -- Sending people to the moon and Mars is no longer just President Bush's vision. It's officially the United States' new mission in space.
Congress voted Saturday to give NASA all of the $16.2 billion it sought for 2005, money not only to return the space shuttles to flight but also to start designing a replacement spaceship and planning moon missions.
"This is a great day for NASA, and a great day for the Space Coast," said U.S. Rep. David Weldon, R-Melbourne, who sits on the powerful House Appropriations Committee that controls the federal budget.
The NASA budget got lumped in with everything else in a two-foot thick budget document that left some members of Congress complaining they did not have enough time to read it before they had to vote on it. Still, the House voted 344-51 to approve it Saturday afternoon. Senate approval was expected hours later.
The 6 percent increase for NASA was remarkable in many ways. First, tight budgets forced the president and Congress to all but freeze spending for projects unrelated to fighting terrorism or national defense.
Also, Congress has grown cold to NASA's requests for big investments in new space projects. A similar proposal by President Bush's father was dead on arrival in Congress.
Critics who argued that money spent on space could be better invested on Earth gained new political ammunition when NASA admitted in 2001 that the space station was more than$5 billion over budget. The agency's been on a sort of political and financial probation ever since.
Bipartisan skepticism of NASA proposals reigned, even after the Columbia shuttle disaster brought calls for a more defined mission for the nation's space agency.
This time, the political dynamic was different. Bush introduced the new vision Jan. 14, then let Vice President Dick Cheney and NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe sell it to Congress. They got help from a quiet, but effective lobbying effort by the aerospace contractors who stand to profit from the projects.
Meanwhile, Bush said nothing about NASA during the presidential campaign, although his top budget aides threatened to veto any spending bill that did not include full funding for his space plan.
Congress didn't seem interested, and the House even passed a budget that slashed almost a billion dollars from the NASA request. The Senate was more generous, but the budget did not pass before Congress went on break for the November elections. That left NASA's fate to behind-the-scenes negotiations.
Luckily for the agency, it has friends in high places. Sen. Bill Nelson, who flew on the shuttle, is an ardent NASA supporter with influence among Democrats. Weldon's seat on the appropriations committee helps.
However, the most influential negotiator was House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, who represents thousands of space workers at the Johnson Space Center in Houston.
House and Senate negotiators came back Friday evening with a bill still $300 million short of the NASA request. Weldon said DeLay told counterparts he would not let the budget bill come up for a vote Saturday -- when there was a midnight deadline for passing a 2005 budget -- unless NASA got what Bush asked for.
"He really made a goal-line stand," Weldon said.
Frank Sietzen, who was a spokesman for the Bush presidential campaign on space policy issues, said the budget approval was a huge victory for NASA.
"A bi-partisan coalition came together to win the passage," Sietzen said. "That coalition will also be needed in a few months to see the 2006 submission through the political thicket."
Beyond just the money, it appears Congress is willing to give NASA some leeway it has not had since the space station debacle.
"The agreement gives NASA almost total funding flexibility," said a summary of the budget released by the House Appropriations Committee. "This flexibility is unprecedented and gives the administrator broad latitude to implement the president's vision for space within the funds provided in the bill."
However, leaders in both parties still have hard questions. Among them: how NASA will fund and field a mission to repair the aging Hubble Space Telescope and how the agency will deal with escalating costs associated with making safety fixes to return the shuttles to flight next year.
The Congress is demanding reports from NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe on those two issues within 60 days, including whether paying for those efforts will mean cuts to other space or science projects.
Despite the knowledge that NASA received full total funding, specific numbers about how much was awarded for individual NASA projects might not be available until early next week.
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