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Lawmakers slash NASA budget request

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In a move that reflects the uncertainty surrounding NASA's current strategy for replacing the space shuttle and returning astronauts to the moon by 2020, House appropriators slashed by 16 percent the space agency's $4 billion request for manned space exploration in 2010.

The proposed legislation, marked up June 4 by the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee, trims $483 million overall from U.S. President Barack Obama's $18.7 billion budget request for NASA next year. The $670 million cut to the 2010 manned exploration request would leave $3.21 billion, which is less than is available for the effort this year.

Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), the subcommittee's chairman, described the move as a "time-out" in the budget process as the White House awaits the findings of a 10-member panel tasked by the White House to reassess NASA's post-shuttle exploration plans. That panel, led by former Lockheed Martin chief Norm Augustine, is expected to report back with its findings in August.

In his opening statement at the markup hearing, Mollohan said the cut should not be viewed as a diminution of the subcommittee's support for NASA's human spaceflight activities. "Rather, it's a deferral taken without prejudice; it is a pause, a time-out, to allow the president to establish his vision for human space exploration and to commit to realistic future funding levels to realize this vision."

Mollohan told Space News June 4 he is "open to responding to an amended budget request" based on Augustine's review. Mollohan also said he expects the Obama administration to deliver to Congress a "realistic and sustainable" cost assessment of NASA's human spaceflight program in time to amend the 2010 request.

"We invite this report and the administration's response to it, whatever it is," Mollohan said. "We want very much for the funding to be an honest and realistic cost assessment."

Concerns raised
NASA's current human spaceflight plan calls for retiring the space shuttle in 2010 and replacing it with a crew capsule dubbed Orion that would be launched atop a shuttle-derived rocket, the Ares-1, starting in 2015. At the president's request, Augustine's panel is taking a second look at this plan, along with NASA's strategy for returning astronauts to the Moon by 2020, given the likely available budgets over the next several years.

During the hearing, key Republicans expressed concern that the bill would hold NASA's funding next year to 2009 levels. In a June 4 statement Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), said he was joining colleagues "in expressing my strong support for increasing this funding as we continue the Fiscal Year 2010 bill process."

Aderholt specifically named fellow Republican Reps. Jerry Lewis of California, the ranking member of the Appropriations Committee; Frank Wolf of Virginia, the ranking member of the commerce, justice, science subcommittee; and John Culberson of Texas.

Other  recommendations contained in the bill include a $77million reduction in NASA's proposed space operations budget, which includes the space shuttle and international space station; a $6 million reduction in science; and a $332 million shift in funds from the Cross Agency Support account to a new budget line-item included in the subcommittee's mark. Dubbed Construction and Environmental Compliance, the new account would be funded at $441 million. Congressional aides said the new line item and accompanying funds are aimed at consolidating NASA's various construction efforts into a single pot of money.

Following the markup, the subcommittee posted on its Web site an exhaustive list of earmarks sought by its members. According to the document, money tapped for NASA earmarks totaled close to $15 million.

While increasing NASA's topline funding figure over 2009, Obama's 2010 funding request included an out-year budget profile for the space agency that is some $3 billion lower than was anticipated at this time last year.

Paul Shawcross, chief of the science and space branch in the White House Office of Management and Budget, said the administration's commitment to NASA was evident in the 2009 stimulus package — which included $1 billion for NASA programs — as well as in its 2010 budget request.

"But after 2010, it's flat to 2013," Shawcross said June 2 during a symposium hosted by the George Washington University here. He attributed the flat funding profile to the recession and anticipated recovery measures. He said the Obama administration is facing a $1.26 trillion deficit in 2010, a figure the president hopes to reduce to about $500 billion by 2014. Consequently, funding for NASA and other discretionary spending will be squeezed in the out-years.

"That fiscal environment is reflected in NASA's topline request," Shawcross said.

Meanwhile, W. Michael Hawes, associate NASA administrator for program analysis and evaluation — who is charged with leading the agency team that will provide technical and analytic support to the Augustine panel — said the blue-ribbon commission's work is under way.

"We're starting to get questions from the panel, and we'll be doing a series of fact-finding telecons, site visits, public meetings," he told the symposium audience. Hawes said one area on which the panel will focus is the role international cooperation plays in U.S. manned spaceflight. He said the panel would hear from four international space station partners as part of the review process.

Damon Wells, senior policy analyst in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said pursuing international relationships is a key aspect of space policy. "The panel has been explicitly asked to look at international cooperation," Wells told the audience. "It is part of the dialogue."

Hawes toldSpace NewsJune 2 that the panel would not have time to produce an interim report, though the committee expects to brief the White House on its findings mid-August. The committee's final report is expected at the end of that month. The Augustine panel's first public meeting is slated for June 17.

Other speakers at the symposium questioned whether the Augustine panel has been granted sufficient time to do its work.

Marcia Smith, president of the Space and Technology Policy Group, a consultancy here, said the Augustine panel would provide little more than a snapshot in time given its deadline.

"Not everyone agrees on the mandated timing," she said. "Congress, in particular, wants it not to be constrained."

Jeffery Bingham, a member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee's Republican staff and senior adviser on space and aeronautics, agreed.

"I am worried about the time they have, and the resources they have," he told the audience. "It's going to be dicey."

Bingham expressed concern that Augustine was told to limit the options his panel is to present to the administration.

"We think it prejudges the outcome," he said. "We want to see that it is wide open and that all options are on the table."

Richard Obermann, staff director for the House Science and Technology space and aeronautics subcommittee, said lawmakers are encouraged by the additional funds for NASA programs in the 2009 stimulus package and the 2010 budget request. But Obermann expressed "uncertainty with the new administration's intentions," particularly in the out-years, where NASA's topline funding is flat.

Oberman said increases in other parts of NASA's budget, including aeronautics and Earth science, came at the expense of out-year funding for space exploration. Obermann said he sees NASA's current funding projections for 2010-2014 as a placeholder, and that he expects the Augustine panel's review to influence funding for the space agency's exploration programs in the out-year timeframe. Obermann said he was encouraged by the choice of Augustine to lead the human spaceflight review, noting testimony Augustine gave before the House Science and Technology Committee in 2004, shortly after former President George W. Bush announced plans to replace the space shuttle and return astronauts to the Moon.

At that time Augustine said manned space exploration offered many benefits, but that "it would be a grave mistake to try to pursue a space program on the cheap. To do so is in my opinion an invitation to disaster. There is a tendency in any can-do organization to believe that it can operate with almost any budget that is made available. The fact is that trying to do so is a mistake — particularly when safety is a major consideration."

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