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Lawmakers Slash $670 Million From NASA Budget Request

WASHINGTON ? In a move that reflects the uncertaintysurrounding NASA's current strategy for replacing the space shuttle andreturning astronauts to the Moon by 2020, House appropriators slashed by 16 percentthe space agency's $4 billion request for manned space exploration in 2010.

The proposed legislation, marked up June 4 by the HouseAppropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee, trims $483 millionoverall from U.S. President BarackObama's $18.7 billion budget request for NASA next year. The $670 millioncut to the 2010manned exploration request would leave $3.21 billion, which is less than isavailable for the effort this year. 

Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), the subcommittee's chairman,described the move as a "time-out" in the budget process as the WhiteHouse awaits the findings of a 10-member panel tasked by the White House toreassess NASA's post-shuttle exploration plans. That panel, led by former Lockheed Martin chiefNorm Augustine, is expected to report back with its findings in August.

In his opening statement at the markup hearing, Mollohansaid the cut should not be viewed as a diminution of the subcommittee's supportfor NASA's human spaceflight activities. "Rather, it's a deferral takenwithout prejudice; it is a pause, a time-out, to allow the president toestablish his visionfor human space exploration and to commit to realistic future fundinglevels to realize this vision."

Mollohan told Space News June 4 he is "open toresponding to an amended budget request" based on Augustine's review.Mollohan also said he expects the Obama administration to deliver to Congress a"realistic and sustainable" cost assessment of NASA's humanspaceflight program in time to amend the 2010 request.

"We invite this report and the administration'sresponse to it, whatever it is," Mollohan said. "We want very muchfor the funding to be an honest and realistic cost assessment."

NASA's current human spaceflight plan calls for retiring thespace shuttle in 2010 and replacing it with a crew capsule dubbed Orion thatwould be launched atop a shuttle-derived rocket, the Ares-1, starting in 2015.At the president's request, Augustine's panel is taking a second look at thisplan, along with NASA's strategy for returning astronauts to the Moon by 2020,given the likely available budgets over the next several years.

During the hearing, key Republicans expressed concern thatthe bill would hold NASA's funding next year to 2009 levels. In a June 4statement Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), said he was joining colleagues"in expressing my strong support for increasing this funding as wecontinue the Fiscal Year 2010 bill process."

Aderholt specifically named fellow Republican Reps. JerryLewis of California, the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee; FrankWolf of Virginia, the ranking member of the commerce, justice, sciencesubcommittee; and John Culberson of Texas.

Other  recommendations contained in the bill include a$77million reduction in NASA's proposed space operations budget, which includesthe space shuttle and international space station; a $6 million reduction inscience; and a $332 million shift in funds from the Cross Agency Supportaccount to a new budget line-item included in the subcommittee's mark. DubbedConstruction and Environmental Compliance, the new account would be fundedat $441 million. Congressional aides said the new line item andaccompanying funds are aimed at consolidating NASA's various constructionefforts into a single pot of money. 

Following the markup, the subcommittee posted on its Website an exhaustive list of earmarks sought by its members. According to thedocument, money tapped for NASA earmarks totaled close to $15 million. 

While increasing NASA's topline funding figure over 2009,Obama's 2010 funding request included an out-year budget profile for the spaceagency that is some $3 billion lower than was anticipated at this timelast year.

Paul Shawcross, chief of the science and space branch in theWhite House Office of Management and Budget, said the administration'scommitment to NASA was evident in the 2009 stimulus package ? whichincluded $1 billion for NASA programs ? as well as in its 2010 budget request.

"But after 2010, it's flat to 2013," Shawcrosssaid June 2 during a symposium hosted by the George Washington University here.He attributed the flat funding profile to the recession and anticipatedrecovery measures. He said the Obama administration is facing a $1.26trillion deficit in 2010, a figure the president hopes to reduce to about $500billion by 2014. Consequently, funding for NASA and other discretionaryspending will be squeezed in the out-years.

"That fiscal environment is reflected in NASA's toplinerequest," Shawcross said.

Meanwhile, W. Michael Hawes, associate NASA administratorfor program analysis and evaluation ? who is charged with leading the agencyteam that will provide technical and analytic support to the Augustine panel ?said the blue-ribbon commission's work is under way.

"We're starting to get questions from the panel, andwe'll be doing a series of fact-finding telecons, site visits, publicmeetings," he told the symposium audience. Hawes said one area on whichthe panel will focus is the role international cooperation plays in U.S. mannedspaceflight. He said the panel would hear from four international space stationpartners as part of the review process.

Damon Wells, senior policy analyst in the White House Officeof Science and Technology Policy, said pursuing international relationships isa key aspect of space policy. "The panel has been explicitly asked to lookat international cooperation," Wells told the audience. "It is partof the dialogue."

Hawes told Space News June 2 that the panel would nothave time to produce an interim report, though the committee expects to briefthe White House on its findings mid-August. The committee's final report isexpected at the end of that month. The Augustine panel's first public meetingis slated for June 17.

Other speakers at the symposium questioned whether theAugustine panel has been granted sufficient time to do its work.

Marcia Smith, president of the Space and Technology PolicyGroup, a consultancy here, said the Augustine panel would providelittle more than a snapshot in time given its deadline.

"Not everyone agrees on the mandated timing," shesaid. "Congress, in particular, wants it not to be constrained."

Jeffery Bingham, a member of the Senate Commerce, Scienceand Transportation Committee's Republican staff and senior adviser on space andaeronautics, agreed.

"I am worried about the time they have, and theresources they have," he told the audience. "It's going to bedicey."

Bingham expressed concern that Augustine was told to limitthe options his panel is to present to the administration.

"We think it prejudges the outcome," he said."We want to see that it is wide open and that all options are on thetable."

Richard Obermann, staff director for the House Science andTechnology space and aeronautics subcommittee, said lawmakers are encouraged bythe additional funds for NASA programs in the 2009 stimulus package andthe 2010 budget request. But Obermann expressed "uncertainty with the newadministration's intentions," particularly in the out-years, where NASA'stopline funding is flat.

Oberman said increases in other parts of NASA's budget,including aeronautics and Earth science, came at the expense of out-yearfunding for space exploration. Obermann said he sees NASA's current fundingprojections for 2010-2014 as a placeholder, and that he expects the Augustinepanel's review to influence funding for the space agency's exploration programsin the out-year timeframe. Obermann said he was encouraged by the choice ofAugustine to lead the human spaceflight review, noting testimony Augustine gavebefore the House Science and Technology Committee in 2004, shortly after formerPresident George W. Bush announced plans to replace the space shuttle andreturn astronauts to the Moon.

At that time Augustine said manned space exploration offeredmany benefits, but that "it would be a grave mistake to try to pursue aspace program on the cheap. To do so is in my opinion an invitation todisaster. There is a tendency in any can-do organization to believe thatit can operate with almost any budget that is made available. The fact is thattrying to do so is a mistake ? particularly when safety is a majorconsideration."  

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