Analysis: Congress warms to new space plan

By FRANK SIETZEN, United Press International  |  April 6, 2004 at 12:30 PM
share with facebook
share with twitter

WASHINGTON, April 6 (UPI) -- In the 1983 movie, "The Right Stuff," astronaut Gordo Cooper points toward a space capsule and asks a NASA scientist, "Do you know what makes this bird go up?"

Cooper answers his own question: "Funding makes this bird go up!" At which point, astronaut Gus Grissom chimes in: "No bucks? No 'Buck Rogers!'"

That alleged conversation took place more than four decades ago, during the height of the space race with the Soviet Union. Today, the same refrain applies. Without funding from Congress, no U.S. spaceship will blast off for anywhere.

The latest application of this unavoidable fact involves President George W. Bush's proposal to return astronauts to the moon and then journey onward to Mars.

Bush outlined his plan at a speech at NASA headquarters in Washington Jan. 14. The plan calls for, among other things, retiring the space shuttle fleet after the International Space Station is completed and developing a new generation of spacecraft, intended to ferry both robot probes and human missions outward into the solar system.

The plan is undeniably bold, but many of the politicians who will have to write the checks have been cool, indifferent, even hostile to it. Opponents have included Democratic supporters of presidential candidate Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., but also many conservative, pro-Bush Republicans.

With the budget season approaching a crucial phase, the president's space initiative has remained stuck on the ground, appearing to be headed to the back burner amid a crowded congressional agenda dominated by more earthly concerns -- principally the economy and homeland security.

Now, after weeks of unrelenting skepticism by members of Congress, a bipartisan coalition may be coming together to approve a down payment on the moon-Mars proposal.

Senior administration sources told United Press International that support in the House of Representative has improved chances to give NASA the full $16.244 billion it has requested for fiscal year 2005 -- an $866 million boost over last year's funding.

Much of the increase will go to returning the shuttle to flight and continuing funding for the space station, thereby freeing up other space funds to begin the space exploration plan. According to senior administration sources, the route to the funding may take an unusual turn, however. With the rapidly dwindling calendar -- fewer than 60 legislative days actually remain before Congress recesses for the fall political campaign -- next year's federal spending may be wrapped into a continuing resolution that funds all non-defense and homeland security agencies at 2004 spending levels.

There is one exception to this outcome, sources said. That would be NASA, receiving the funding requested by Bush for 2005.

The breakthrough emerged during negotiations over the new Senate budget resolution, which sets a ceiling on federal spending. A bipartisan effort managed to amend the original NASA amount adopted -- only a 1.4 percent boost for the space program -- to restore nearly all of the $866 million the administration was seeking.

In the negotiations, Sens. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., and and Don Nickles, R-Okla., crafted the amendment that restored the full NASA amount. Though the actual appropriation could vary from the resolution's recommendations, it is considered a marker and indicative of the likely final outcome of the Senate's budget deliberations.

The action was matched last week with a breakthrough of sorts in the House. It gained the support of both conservative Democrats and a group of Republican budget hawks, sources told UPI.

Sean O'Keefe, NASA's administrator, and several senior aides met with the so-called Blue Dog Democrats, a group of conservative House members that included Charles Stenholm of Texas, Mike McIntyre of North Carolina, Robert "Bud" Cramer of Alabama and Gene Taylor of Mississippi, as well as other Democratic budget hawks.

The group vented their concerns about NASA's budget and got in return what one attendee called a detailed review of how the space agency plans to pay for the new space effort. The result was the Blue Dogs agreed to support an amendment to the House version of the budget resolution granting the full NASA request.

According to congressional sources, several House members complained Bush has failed to say anything more about the moon-Mars plan since his Jan. 14 speech, and his silence has been interpreted as a cooling of support. The group was told the White House was silent, not because Bush was rethinking his grand space plan, but was instead trying to avoid further politicization.

One source told UPI that Bush would "keep his powder dry until the myths, legends, and political barbs on this strategy subside," and the president probably would speak again about his space plan sometime late in his re-election campaign.

NASA also received new support from the Republican Study Committee, another group of fiscal hawks. Reps. John A. Culberson of Texas, and Tom Feeney and Dave Weldon, both of Florida, as well as Roscoe Bartlett of Maryland, helped gain the group's support for NASA, a source said.

Although all these recent signs are positive, the space plan still faces an uphill battle. The Blue Dog amendment was far from a floor vote, and the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that controls NASA funding has yet to weigh in on its recommended final amount for FY 2005. Considerable support remains for freezing NASA's budget at last year's levels.

For its part, NASA warns that any such action would have far reaching consequences for the civil space program.

Figures released by the agency show such a freeze would threaten the shuttle's return to flight and continuation of the space station's construction.

NASA needs a $374 million increase over last year's budget just to pay for the repairs to the shuttle fleet ordered after the Columbia accident, and $365 million more for the space station to make up for a $200 million cut last year and to pay for new crew and cargo missions to the orbiting base. Also, O'Keefe is seeking $136 million to begin developing technologies for the new space-exploration effort.

The outcome of these issues remains in doubt, but there are at least some signs the Bush space vision is still alive in Congress.

Buck Rogers himself would be pleased.


Frank Sietzen covers aerospace issues for UPI Science News. E-mail

Related UPI Stories
Trending Stories