WASHINGTON - The House Science Committee's Republican chairman and senior Democrat told NASA Administrator Mike Griffin they had little interest in accelerating the U.S. space agency's exploration plans at the expense of science and research.
Griffin appeared before the House Science Committee Thursday to defend his agency's 2007 budget request of $16.792 billion, which would hold science spending to a 1.5-percent increase next year in order to fund a nearly $1 billion increase for exploration. NASA plans to postpone or cancel several major science missions to help free up the additional money its needs to build new spacecraft and launchers while also operating a space shuttle fleet slated to fly 16 missions to the international space station before its retired in 2010.
"I am extremely uneasy about this budget, and I am in a quandary at this point about what to do about it," Boehlert told Griffin. "This budget is bad for space science, worse for Earth science, perhaps worse still for aeronautics. It basically cuts or de-emphasizes every forward looking, truly futuristic program of the agency to fund operational and development programs to enable us to do what we are already doing or have done before."
Boehert said that while he supports the Vision for Space Exploration, he does not "see any reason to accelerate it beyond the president's original plans" which called for fielding the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) by 2014 and landing astronauts on the Moon by 2020.
Boehlert, who said he had not made up his mind about what should be done about the NASA budget, said he would be willing to vote for giving NASA more money than the White House requested as long as the money went to unmanned side of the program and did not come from other science agencies. "But money is not exactly growing on trees around here so what to do is not clear," he said.
Rep. Bart Gordon (Tenn.), the committee's ranking Democrat, who said he had not decided his final position, raised the possibility during the hearing of slowing down NASA's exploration effort in order to maintain a better funding balance among the agency's other programs.
"I want to make it clear that I don't want to see Congress signing up for another big, underfunded hardware program, that winds up costing more, doing less and cannibalizing other important NASA missions," Gordon said. "We have been down that road too many times in the past, and I've got no desire to do so again."
Griffin testified that NASA's 2007 request, which calls for a smaller increases than the White House previously projected, already puts the exploration program on a slower timetable than he would prefer.
"We have already slowed down the CEV development to the 2013-2014 time frame, that is where we are currently sitting." Griffin said.
Although 2014 is the date President George W. Bush set for fielding the CEV when he announced the Vision for Space Exploration in January 2004, Griffin made clear before taking his oath of office last April that he intended to accelerate CEV development in order to close the gap between the shuttle's 2010 retirement and the first crewed flight of the new system.
The Exploration Systems Architecture Team that Griffin chartered last spring to plot NASA's path back to the Moon laid out a plan for fielding the CEV in 2011. But by the time Griffin finally unveiled the exploration architecture last September, CEV was on the calendar for 2012.
When NASA's 2007 budget request was unveiled Feb. 6, Griffin said NASA still intended to field the CEV "as close to 2010 as possible and no later than 2014."