President Bush's "Vision for Space Exploration" made headlines when it was announced 31/2 months ago, but Congress has refused to even consider funding the initiative until NASA comes up with more concrete proposals to flesh it out.
The impasse has brought to a standstill NASA's plans to begin work on the new strategy, even as long-standing programs ranging from the grounded space shuttles to Earth science and aeronautics remain mired in uncertainty.
Space advocates in both the Senate and the House have already rebuffed NASA's attempts to reallocate money in the current year to jump-start parts of the plan and have warned the agency that its 2005 budget proposal will not pass at its $16.2 billion price tag -- and maybe not at any price -- in a Congress trying to cope with record budget deficits and protracted war.
The pessimism shrouding the proposal is unusual for Capitol Hill in that it is both bipartisan and unequivocal. "I cannot commit this Congress or future Congresses to support an undefined program," Rep. James T. Walsh (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, said at a hearing last month.
"There's a lot of consternation about this process," added Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (D-W.Va.), the ranking minority member. "I think we would like a plan, and that's not apparent here at all."
NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, making his budget pitch to the panel, promised "we're prepared to deliver whatever you believe is necessary," but several lawmakers said selling the initiative may be beyond O'Keefe.
"It comes down to what priority the president gives it," said Rep. Bart Gordon (Tenn.), ranking Democrat on the House Science Committee. "Is he committed?"
Bush unveiled the "Vision" in a Jan. 14 speech, promising to "extend a human presence across our solar system," starting with a return to the moon by 2020 and an eventual human spaceflight to Mars.
'A wonderful dream'
The plan called for completion of the international space station by 2010, after which the three remaining space shuttles would be retired. A new "crew exploration vehicle" would be designed and developed to travel to the moon and beyond.
He described the initiative as "a journey, not a race" and, in a concession to burgeoning deficits and war costs, asked for only $1 billion in new money for the plan for the next five years. The remaining $11 billion would be reallocated from within NASA's existing programs.
Despite charges of election-year grandstanding, Bush appears to have gained nothing politically from the announcement. A Jan. 18 Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 62 percent of Americans opposed the plan. Bush has not mentioned it since the speech.
In Congress, however, Bush appeared to win almost universal approval for providing a badly needed new direction for NASA, still reeling from the disintegration of the space shuttle Columbia last year.
In a recent telephone interview, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), involved in NASA and space funding for well over a decade, echoed several colleagues when she described Bush's concept as "a wonderful dream."
But the devil is in the details, and in the three months that have elapsed since the Bush speech, lawmakers say NASA has done relatively little to fill in the original broad-stroke outline: "What they have is a schedule, not a plan," Mikulski said. Right now, she added, "I am overtly opposed to it."
In repeated appearances on Capitol Hill and elsewhere, first to win support for the plan and now to gain approval of NASA's 2005 budget, O'Keefe has braved withering criticism for failing to detail adequately what Mollohan described last month as a restructuring of NASA, "major in every way."
Throughout these ordeals, NASA's chief has stressed the virtue of avoiding over-promising early in an initiative likely to last decades. The president has pointed NASA in a different direction, he says, and given it the flexibility to adjust its timetable and funding as circumstances dictate.
The lack of details is "not a reluctance on our part," O'Keefe said in an interview. "We establish the program details as we move forward, and build on the successes as they are achieved. All of these things should be refined as you move along."
This approach is meeting with little success: "I like Sean O'Keefe a lot," House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood L. Boehlert (R-N.Y.) said in an interview, but "we can't be faulted for asking for more information." He said O'Keefe has scant hopes of getting his requested budget, an increase of $866 million over 2004: "Congress wants to eliminate the deficit, and we're adding rather than subtracting," he said. Shrinkage, he added, "is inevitable."
But the increase by itself does not irk lawmakers nearly as much as what they perceive to be NASA's failure to satisfy them with details about what specific programs will be added and cut because of the vision, and by how much.
"Where does the financing come from?" Boehlert asked. "What is the impact on other areas?"
NASA's 2005 budget proposal shows increases for some areas of "space science" -- especially those associated with the new initiative; cuts for others; substantial cuts for Earth science, which includes satellite monitoring of Earth's atmosphere, weather and geology; and aeronautics, NASA's aviation research arm.
Lawmakers' efforts to pin NASA down have prompted several testy exchanges with O'Keefe: "They tell us what they're going to spend but don't say what we get for it, or when," said Gordon, a frequent critic. "And they don't tell us what programs they're going to cannibalize -- they simply have to be more forthcoming."
O'Keefe said NASA is moving "as briskly as possible" to provide details: "You can't disprove something that's a blanket assertion," he said. "You have to be specific. Show me what you don't have and we'll provide it."
O'Keefe said he "didn't see a big substantive difference" between NASA and Congress, but late last month, in a rare bipartisan rebuke, the leaders of appropriations subcommittees in both chambers of Congress -- Walsh, Mollohan, Mikulski and Sen. Christopher S. Bond (R-Mo.) -- sent a letter to O'Keefe denying him the authority to reprogram 2004 funds in order to launch the new initiatives.
"NASA has not provided sufficient information" to justify the changes, the lawmakers said. Further, the letter added, "any activities that have begun without prior approval by the Committees . . . will be suspended," and any cuts in programs or staff "shall be subject to review of the Committees prior to approval."
NASA programs in limbo
By preventing NASA from making changes, the letter has brought the new programs to a dead stop. And by denying NASA the ability even to lay the groundwork, the letter ensured that no changes will occur should Congress fail to pass a new NASA spending bill this year and simply continue 2004 levels. There is a strong possibility that this could occur in an election year.
This face-off has left many proven NASA programs in limbo, particularly those in Earth science and aeronautics, and could also disrupt the timing of the Vision initiative. O'Keefe told the House subcommittee last month that 85 percent of NASA's 2005 budget increase was related to space station activities -- including the space shuttle -- and that the plan would be "compromised" if budget increases were denied.
Gordon said only a "wild optimist" would believe NASA's prediction that the shuttle will be finished servicing the space station by 2010, a statement echoed by colleagues of both parties. Should the deadline slip, costs "will skyrocket," Mikulski added. Shuttle operations -- projected at $4.3 billion for 2005 -- are by far the biggest item in any NASA budget.
This concern has opened a debate on whether NASA should scrap the shuttle sooner rather than later and channel the savings into the Vision programs. "The shuttle is key," said Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), chairman of the Senate Commerce subcommittee on science, technology and space. "How much more money do we put in it?"
Getting rid of the shuttle would mean prolonging dependence on Russian spacecraft for trips to the space station and would make it impossible to send up the components needed to finish the station. Gordon said he could not tell whether such a plan "is feasible, but we ought to take a serious look at it."
All sides on Capitol Hill agree, however, that the fate of the president's proposal is, at best, in doubt. Should Congress vote on the plan, the outcome would be "very iffy," Boehlert acknowledged. But "we have to have [the debate] -- and it's anybody's guess how it comes out."