WASHINGTON, May 21 (UPI) -- A House-Senate conference committee has hammered out a budget resolution that endorses President Bush's visionary space plan, but how much money it ultimately will authorize to begin the project remains open to conjecture.
The conference committee worked out an agreement late Wednesday on a resolution that set a ceiling for federal spending in fiscal year 2005, which begins October 1. In an account that includes science and space programs -- such as NASA's spaceflight projects and other projects within the Energy Department and the National Science Foundation -- the conference committee approved $23.8 billion in spending for FY 2005.
Normally, committee sources told UPI, some two-thirds of that total would go to space programs. The actual amount the National Aeronautics and Space Administration will receive, however, must be determined by the appropriations committees of both houses of Congress, neither of which as yet has taken up NASA's spending request.
A reauthorization bill for the civil space agency is expected to be finalized and head for a House floor vote before Congress adjourns for its summer recess. Even if that occurs, though, a final budget bill for NASA is unlikely to emerge before the new fiscal year begins.
Instead, Congress probably will approve a resolution that allows the federal government to continue spending money, usually at the previous year's level, until legislators authorize the new budget. Following what has become something of a routine over the past decade or so, continuing resolutions could fill the budget gap well into FY 2005. In fact, some congressional sources said, these stopgap spending measures may be needed through the entire fiscal year.
Under the terms of Wednesday's action, the conference committee expressed support for the Bush space plan, and strong support for the space shuttle and International Space Station programs.
"The conferees support the president's vision for exploration and believe the fiscal year 2005 funding ... should provide sufficient funding to initiate the process," the report that accompanied the resolution stated. It also said the bulk of NASA's increase was dedicated to costs associated with returning the space shuttle to flight and continued construction and operations of the station.
"The conferees hope that these two must-fund requirements will be taken into account during their consideration of the NASA appropriations," the report stated.
One reason for the delay in congressional action on NASA's budget is this year's shortened work calendar because of the political campaigns. The House and Senate space committees also have been reluctant to act on the administration's space request, citing the need for additional information and details on the project.
Should Congress wind up funding NASA at last year's level, the space agency will need to slash spending on a variety of programs to keep new activities running. Of the $866 million increase Bush was seeking in the 2005 budget, 85 percent would be needed to cover repair costs on the shuttles and the space station assembly.
NASA documents provided to UPI list these as $374 million for the shuttle fix, $365 million for the station and only $136 million to begin the new space exploration plan, which the president announced Jan. 14. Over the next decade, Bush requested a total $1 billion in new spending for NASA, matched by an additional $11 billion that normally would have been part of NASA's annual request during that decade, but now will be redirected to the exploration program.
The administration is expected to release details of a large-scale NASA reorganization by the end of July that will explain in greater detail how that reprogramming will be conducted.
Meanwhile, though NASA's budget may be approved by the House in July, Senate action before the August recess -- and during the abbreviated fall session -- seems unlikely. Congress is set to adjourn in October so House members and some senators can campaign for re-election, as well for their presidential standard-bearers.
All of this means a protracted debate over the final shape of the space agency's funding -- and the fate of Bush's moon, Mars and beyond exploration proposal in general -- is doubtful before the end of the year.
Critics already have begun to protest some potential areas that might be cut, such as programs in Earth science and aeronautics, suggesting they are equally as important to NASA as Bush's plan.
The president had directed NASA in January to reassess any of its programs that did not contribute to his new space exploration policy.
Frank Sietzen covers aerospace for UPI Science News. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org