Election Results Could Put NASA's Future Under Fire

With Republicans set to lead the House following the recentmidterm elections, new doubts are rising over the state of NASA's 2011 budget.

A bipartisan NASA authorization bill signed by PresidentObama last month allocated $19 billion for NASA next year ? a modest boost fromNASA's 2010 budget of $18.3 billion. But funds for that bill have not yet gonethrough the appropriations process by Congress.

Newlyelected GOP leaders say they will work to cut government spending andreduce the deficit. HouseRepublican leader John Boehner (R?OH) said his party will aim to cutnon-military discretionary spending back to 2008 levels.

That would take NASA's budget down to $17.3 billion ? a movesome say would risk the United States' competitiveness in space. [Poll:How Will NASA's New Direction Fare in the New Congress?]

Vulnerable budget

"If we are going to have a program that's going to moveforward, 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 isimportant, he doesn't consider NASA discretionary spending.

"If our goals are defenses for the nation, improvingeducation in science and technology fields, and providing to keep Americanumber one in space, then do you define NASA as discretionary?" he toldSPACE.com. "That's going to be one of the topics we're going to have toaddress."

But that reasoning may not sway everyone.

"On one hand, NASA is a non-defense discretionaryactivity that can be cut. On the other hand, NASA continues to be popular withthe American people and represents the kind of positive, innovation-drivenimage that both parties would like to be associated with," said ScottPace, director of theSpace Policy Institute at George Washington University inWashington, D.C. "While NASA is at risk, I would hope that it is at lessrisk than other discretionary government activities."

While making difficult choices, lawmakers may find they havea soft spot for the space program.

"Even though there's an appalling amount of pork-barrelingin most local congressmen's support of NASA, there's also a wider consensusthat space spending is a long-range wealth creator by being a knowledge andknow-how creator," said space policy expert James Oberg, a former shuttlemission control engineer. "So financial support of NASA and similarresearch activities may be considered fundamentally different from day-to-daycosts 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 throughchanges of administrations and congresses," a NASA spokesperson toldSPACE.com. "Just last month, Congress passed NASA's funding blueprint fornext year with a strong bipartisan vote. We look forward to continuing to workwith members of Congress in both parties and both chambers."

New direction

Whether or not NASA's overall operating budget is reduced,the general plans for the agency outlined by the new bill are likely to goforward, experts said. [FAQ:NASA's New Direction]

Under the plan, NASA would abandon many of its projects underthe old Constellation program designed to return astronauts to the moon, andinstead aim to visit an asteroid and Mars. The agency would also look tooutsource transporting people to low-Earth orbit and the International SpaceStation to the private sector.

The bill also calls for extending the life of the spacestation past its initial retirement date to 2020.

One of the saving graces of the bill may be that it wasgenuinely bipartisan.

"The bill that passed in the House was a compromise andit incorporated Democrats and Republicans," said space policy expert RogerHandberg, a political scientist at the University of Central Florida. "Thecompromise will be made to work because it still keeps the budget relativelyunder control."

What gets cut?

The real question, he said, was whether the new Congresswould support funding one finalspace shuttle flight beyond the two currently scheduled.

NASA is set to retire its three-orbiter fleet in 2011 afterthe shuttles Discovery and Endeavour each fly once more, but the authorizationbill provided for one more mission of the space shuttle Atlantis as well.

"If there's a whole bunch of things being whacked [fromthe Federal budget], it's going to go down with them," Handberg predicted.

While the Constellation program is unlikely to beresurrected in name, part of the new compromise bill saves elements of thatplan, including continuing development of the new Orion crew capsule.

"Some semblance of a Constellation program is probablywhat will go forward," Battle said. "It may not go forward under thename Constellation, but we've got way too much invested in this program just tothrow it out."

Yet while there is broad political support for many of thespaceflight goals expressed in the bill, the funding may not match the agency'sneeds to get it done.

"It may turn out that sustaining the InternationalSpace Station through 2020 is all that will be affordable for human spaceflight," Pace said.


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Clara Moskowitz
Assistant Managing Editor

Clara Moskowitz is a science and space writer who joined the Space.com team in 2008 and served as Assistant Managing Editor from 2011 to 2013. Clara has a bachelor's degree in astronomy and physics from Wesleyan University, and a graduate certificate in science writing from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She covers everything from astronomy to human spaceflight and once aced a NASTAR suborbital spaceflight training program for space missions. Clara is currently Associate Editor of Scientific American. To see her latest project is, follow Clara on Twitter.