Money worries loom as NASA plots missions to Mars, moon

WASHINGTON (MCT) — NASA’s moon mission is on financially safe ground, but a congressional budget crunch could mean other parts of the agency will suffer.

The anticipated shortfall — at least $500 million — stems from inaction on Capitol Hill. When Congress adjourned in 2006, lawmakers left undone nearly every major spending bill needed for fiscal year 2007.

To tie up these loose ends, Democratic leaders said they would fund most 2007 spending at 2006 levels.

For NASA, this approach hurts.

By keeping funding at 2006 rates, Congress negates a half-billion dollar raise NASA hoped to get in 2007 — to about $16.8 billion. The move also kills a $1 billion bonus pushed by NASA allies in the Senate.

Adding to the uncertainty is President Bush’s budget proposal for 2008, set for release in early February. NASA could have a tough time getting noticed there too, one political scientist said.

“NASA’s problem is that it’s not a national priority. It’s not a national priority in a time of war. It’s not a national priority in a time of deficit,” said Roger Handberg, a professor at the University of Central Florida who specializes in space policy.

Without guarantees, NASA may have to cut money from some projects if it intends to launch new initiatives — including its goal to ramp up manned space flight.

Right now, NASA is in the early stages of a mission to return astronauts to the moon and establish a base there. A secondary aim is to develop technologies to help launch an inaugural manned flight to Mars.

However, NASA first must build a successful replacement for the space shuttle, which is set for retirement in 2010. The goal is to have the next-generation shuttle ready by 2014.

This plan requires NASA engineers to simultaneously develop a new spacecraft to hold astronauts and reconfigure existing rockets to ensure the new vehicle reaches space.

It’s an expensive undertaking, part of an exploration mission called Constellation that is expected to cost billions annually.

According to the president’s 2007 budget proposal, more than $3 billion was slated for Constellation this year, with planned steady annual increases reaching nearly $7.7 billion in 2011.

The numbers are almost certain to change as NASA adjusts to budget mandates and Bush’s 2008 plan. And no one expects Constellation to emerge completely unscathed.

However, NASA officials have reiterated their support for the rocket and manned spacecraft projects — called Ares and Orion, respectively.

“I have been told, and I agree, those are my primary objectives and they get first dibs (of funding),” said Scott J. Horowitz, associate administrator of NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate.

The emphasis, however, could mean other projects are lower priorities as NASA officials determine how to deal with less money than anticipated.

It wouldn’t be the first time “sciences are gutted,” said Handberg of the University of Central Florida.

A looming budget crunch would be only the latest skirmish in a long-standing internal battle at NASA that often pits space missions against the agency’s other fields of interest, he said.

So far, NASA officials are not saying how they would deal with a severe budget shortfall.

In the past, Bush has been a key supporter of the moon-Mars mission. But incoming Democratic leaders have begun voicing support for causes beyond human exploration.

Earlier this month, the National Research Council released a critical report that said about half the instruments on the country’s environmental satellites may stop working in the next few years — a potential problem as concerns over global warming have risen with changes in the planet’s temperature.

Reversing this trend would cost money, but support for NASA’s earth-science endeavors seems to have earned at least one powerful ally: Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., the new chairman of the House Committee on Science and Technology.

“That finding is no surprise to those of us who have watched the cuts made to NASA’s earth-science program over the last six years …” Gordon said. The science committee “will be watching closely” to see whether the president makes allocations in his 2008 budget to reverse the trend.

A budget focus on exploration seems to favor the Kennedy Space Center, which has a large stake in ongoing shuttle missions and NASA’s new generation of human spaceflight.

For one, NASA intends to help finish all major work on the International Space Station before the shuttle is retired in 2010 and Kennedy Space Center workers are needed for the cycling shuttles into low-Earth orbit

Plus, Kennedy Space Center was among the sites picked to help launch Orion, the new spacecraft for NASA’s astronauts. An estimated 300 workers at the center would be used for this new project.

For both these reasons “it is unlikely the funding shortfall will affect Kennedy Space Center in a measurable way” in the short term, said Bryan Gulley, a spokesman for Democratic Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida.

Nelson, who chairs the Senate subcommittee on space, has vowed to protect the Kennedy Space Center in future budget battles, although no one is sure what will happen to the center after the shuttle is retired.

Congress may get “some first indication” of what’s in store in Bush’s 2008 budget, Gulley said.

Even if budget news is dire for NASA, the agency can lean on powerful allies on Capital Hill. In addition to Nelson, veteran Senators Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., and Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, have been staunch advocates of NASA.

Last year, the two advocated giving NASA an additional $1 billion to help offset costs associated with Hurricane Katrina and the Columbia accident.

The proposal died, but aides in Mikulski’s office said it could return if she thinks NASA needs more money.