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updated 3/15/2004 4:01:15 PM ET 2004-03-15T21:01:15

In what NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe described as the first inning of a long ball game, the first attempt by Congress to cut the substantial budget increase the White House wants for NASA in 2005 was reversed.

The Senate Budget Committee, citing the record budget deficits the United States is experiencing, cut back the money it would make available for many White House spending priorities, including a proposed 5.6 percent budget hike for NASA for 2005. The committee’s budget resolution, adopted March 4, would have trimmed about $600 million from President George W. Bush’s $16.2 billion request for NASA.

But by the time the budget resolution cleared the Senate not long after midnight March 12, it had been amended to fully fund the president’s NASA request. The amendment was offered by Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) with the backing of Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), the chairman of the Senate Commerce science, technology and space subcommittee. Brownback’s subcommittee is responsible for authorizing NASA programs and spending.

Bush wants to increase NASA’s 2004 budget of $15.4 billion by $800 million next year to serve as a down payment on a new exploration agenda that aims to send humans back to the moon as early as 2015 in preparation for more ambitious missions to Mars and beyond.

Both the Senate and the House of Representatives must pass budget resolutions and work out any differences they have before appropriators in both chambers are issued their spending guidance for the year. That guidance, which is called a 302B allocation, sets firm guidelines that limit how much money can be contained in each of the 13 annual spending bills that fund the federal government.

The House Budget Committee had not finished work on its spending resolution for 2005 before members left town for the weekend. Chairman Jim Nussel (R-Iowa) opened the proceedings March 11 urging fiscal restraint and setting a goal for crafting a budget that would cut the federal deficit in half in four years, one year sooner than called for by the president.

Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-Minn.), who also serves on the House Budget Committee, said during a March 10 House Science Committee hearing that the Budget Committee would likely endorse the president’s space exploration vision but not provide the full increase he is seeking for NASA for 2005. The House Budget Committee was expected to return to the budget resolution March 15.

Plans may be too ambitious
Hours before the Senate adopted its budget resolution for 2005, the chairman of the Senate panel that controls the NASA purse strings warned that this could end up being a bad year for funding what he thinks is an admirable, if perhaps too ambitious, exploration agenda for NASA.

“I am afraid you are being asked to do too much with too little in not enough time,” Sen. Christopher “Kit” Bond (R-Mo.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Veteran’s Affairs, Housing and Urban Development and independent agencies subcommittee, told O’Keefe during the first NASA budget hearing of 2004 (NASA is classified as an independent agency). “And then you have the bad luck of asking for more money for a new program in a time of severe budget constraints.”

On the other side of Capitol Hill, members of the House Science Committee continued to register their discontent with NASA’s lack of specificity about the likely long-term cost of the vision and sought second opinions about the wisdom of the vision from a panel of outside experts.

“I think all I need to say about my views this morning is to reiterate that I remain undecided about whether and how to undertake the exploration program,” House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) said. “I would add that, as the outlines of the likely fiscal 2005 budget become clearer, my questions about the initiative only become more pressing.”

Boehlert said the merits of the NASA vision must be judged against competing science spending priorities. Boehlert and some of his colleagues have said they are disappointed with Bush’s proposed science budget for 2005 and have vowed to fight proposed reductions in research spending at the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Standards and Technology, the Environmental Protection Agency and others.

“A society unwilling to invest in science and technology is a society willing to write its own economic obituary,” he said.

Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), the committee’s ranking Democrat and long time NASA supporter, remained tepid on the president’s exploration agenda.

“I support the goal of exploring our solar system,” Gordon said during the hearing. “However, until I am convinced that the president’s plan to achieve that goal is credible and responsible, I am not prepared to give that plan my support.”

Lunar stop debated
Testifying before the committee, Donna Shirley, director of the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame in Seattle and former Mars Exploration Program manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, suggested a return to the moon could be an unnecessary detour on the way to Mars. She warned lawmakers to be on guard against an infrastructure-obsessed NASA getting bogged down with building a lunar outpost or some similarly grand undertaking and never quite making it to Mars.

Mike Griffin, president and chief operating officer of Arlington, Va.-based In-Q-Tel — a venture capital firm funded by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency — defended the moon as an appropriate first step for a space agency that has not left Earth orbit for 30 years. Griffin also said a manned lunar mission need not cost the roughly $55 million NASA has built into its long-term budget projections.

Griffin, who led NASA’s last concerted effort to get out of its low Earth orbit rut under the first President George H.W. Bush, told members that studies he has participated in suggest that NASA could send humans back to the moon for about $30 billion, or 40 percent less. He also said that the United States could send the first humans to Mars for about $130 billion, an amount comparable to the Apollo budget in today’s dollars.

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