By Walter Alarkon - 06/10/09 08:18 PM EDT
A bipartisan group of Texas and Florida lawmakers is pressuring House appropriators to restore hundreds of millions of dollars for space travel, warning that cutting NASA’s budget next year could hurt the economy and national security.
House members from the two states that house NASA’s major space centers met Wednesday to discuss ways to restore the funding, while Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) blasted the proposed reductions as “destructive.”
Yet they all have a vested interest in seeing the nation’s manned space programs continue at full speed.
“Having people in space is how we have come so far and have really been able to dominate space,” Hutchison said.
Hutchison said U.S. manned space travel has improved national security, led to scientific breakthroughs that have helped the economy and improved relations with other countries, whose own space programs have worked with NASA.
The spending bill in the House that sets NASA funding proposes an $18.2 billion budget for the space agency. That would be 2 percent larger than the fiscal 2009 NASA budget, but it is 3 percent less than what President Obama had requested for fiscal 2010.
House appropriators left out a total of $650.6 million that NASA requested. The largest chunk of that money is $566.5 million for space exploration.
Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee with jurisdiction over NASA that proposed the cuts, said appropriators want to see the results of a study, due in August, on manned space travel before they provide the money the Obama administration wants. The space shuttle is scheduled for retirement next year, and the next manned space vehicles, known as the Ares and Orion, won’t be ready until 2015.
Mollohan wants to give the administration a chance to look at the independent report, which could “clarify and identify the position where NASA should go,” said Mollohan’s spokesman, David Herring.
The spending bill with the NASA budget was approved by the House Appropriations Committee on Tuesday, and the panel’s chairman, Rep. David Obey (D-Wis.), has scheduled the bill to be considered by the full House on Tuesday and Wednesday.
NASA advocates in the House said the money could be restored in an amendment when the bill hits the House floor.
Culberson and Rep. Pete Olson (R-Texas) said they’re confident the money will be restored.
“We’ve been talking with the Appropriations Committee,” Olson said. “There are some good developments for when we come on the floor next week.”
The spending bill has yet to be taken up by the Senate Appropriations Committee. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), chairwoman of the subcommittee that will mark up the bill, said last month that she was concerned lawmakers wouldn’t see the results of the independent review before senators consider the agency’s funding.
“This review is timely and necessary,” she said during a hearing on NASA’s budget. “There will be a five-year gap between shuttle retirement and initial operation of Orion and Ares.”
A group of about a dozen House members who oppose the reductions met Wednesday with NASA contractors who help build the agency’s vehicles. The group included Reps. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.), Suzanne Kosmas (D-Fla.), Jackson Lee, Bill Posey (R-Fla.), Olson and Culberson, according to participants.
“NASA’s a bipartisan issue, which is one of the frustrations with the [Appropriations] Committee,” Olson said. “I haven’t found anyone who is opposed to NASA.”
Olson’s district includes parts of Houston and the Johnson Space Center. One of his predecessors, former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), was a strong supporter of the agency, fighting fellow Republicans who sought to trim its budget and getting the Johnson Space Center gerrymandered into his district in 2003.
But Olson dismissed suggestions that Democrats now in control of the House were looking to hurt him or other GOP members.
“It isn’t just aimed at one particular senator,” he said. “It hurts all across the board — areas represented by Republicans, areas represented by Democrats.
The lawmakers looking to restore the money said that the funding for space travel can’t wait until the results of the study because NASA, its workers and contractors are making decisions on their future now. Scientists, whose programs would be squeezed by the tight budget, could leave for other jobs, said Posey, a NASA inspector on Apollo space missions. Their departure would hurt NASA’s attempts to stay ahead of other nations’ space programs, he said.
“Space is the only thing our country is undeniably, universally and unequivocally the respected leader in throughout the world,” Posey said. “It’s a matter of economic and military national security.”