With Republicans set to lead the House following the recent midterm elections, new doubts are rising over the state of NASA's 2011 budget.
A bipartisan NASA authorization bill signed by President Obama last month allocated $19 billion for NASA next year ? a modest boost from NASA's 2010 budget of $18.3 billion. But funds for that bill have not yet gone through the appropriations process by Congress.
Newly elected GOP leaders say they will work to cut government spending and reduce the deficit. House Republican leader John Boehner (R?OH) said his party will aim to cut non-military discretionary spending back to 2008 levels.
That would take NASA's budget down to $17.3 billion ? a move some say would risk the United States' competitiveness in space. [Poll: How Will NASA's New Direction Fare in the New Congress?]
"If we are going to have a program that's going to move forward, we will need the funding that's in there," said Tommy Battle, mayor of Huntsville, Ala., home of NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center.
Battle said that while reducing the nation's deficit is important, he doesn't consider NASA discretionary spending.
"If our goals are defenses for the nation, improving education in science and technology fields, and providing to keep America number one in space, then do you define NASA as discretionary?" he told SPACE.com. "That's going to be one of the topics we're going to have to address."
But that reasoning may not sway everyone.
"On one hand, NASA is a non-defense discretionary activity that can be cut. On the other hand, NASA continues to be popular with the American people and represents the kind of positive, innovation-driven image that both parties would like to be associated with," said Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University in Washington, D.C. "While NASA is at risk, I would hope that it is at less risk than other discretionary government activities."
While making difficult choices, lawmakers may find they have a soft spot for the space program.
"Even though there's an appalling amount of pork-barreling in most local congressmen's support of NASA, there's also a wider consensus that space spending is a long-range wealth creator by being a knowledge and know-how creator," said space policy expert James Oberg, a former shuttle mission control engineer. "So financial support of NASA and similar research activities may be considered fundamentally different from day-to-day costs of governing, and might be successfully promoted as part of the solution, not part of the problem."
NASA seemed to echo this optimism.
"NASA has long enjoyed broad bipartisan support through changes of administrations and congresses," a NASA spokesperson told SPACE.com. "Just last month, Congress passed NASA's funding blueprint for next year with a strong bipartisan vote. We look forward to continuing to work with members of Congress in both parties and both chambers."
Whether or not NASA's overall operating budget is reduced, the general plans for the agency outlined by the new bill are likely to go forward, experts said. [FAQ: NASA's New Direction]
Under the plan, NASA would abandon many of its projects under the old Constellation program designed to return astronauts to the moon, and instead aim to visit an asteroid and Mars. The agency would also look to outsource transporting people to low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station to the private sector.
The bill also calls for extending the life of the space station past its initial retirement date to 2020.
One of the saving graces of the bill may be that it was genuinely bipartisan.
"The bill that passed in the House was a compromise and it incorporated Democrats and Republicans," said space policy expert Roger Handberg, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida. "The compromise will be made to work because it still keeps the budget relatively under control."
What gets cut?
The real question, he said, was whether the new Congress would support funding one final space shuttle flight beyond the two currently scheduled.
NASA is set to retire its three-orbiter fleet in 2011 after the shuttles Discovery and Endeavour each fly once more, but the authorization bill provided for one more mission of the space shuttle Atlantis as well.
"If there's a whole bunch of things being whacked [from the Federal budget], it's going to go down with them," Handberg predicted.
While the Constellation program is unlikely to be resurrected in name, part of the new compromise bill saves elements of that plan, including continuing development of the new Orion crew capsule.
"Some semblance of a Constellation program is probably what will go forward," Battle said. "It may not go forward under the name Constellation, but we've got way too much invested in this program just to throw it out."
Yet while there is broad political support for many of the spaceflight goals expressed in the bill, the funding may not match the agency's needs to get it done.
"It may turn out that sustaining the International Space Station through 2020 is all that will be affordable for human space flight," Pace said.
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