GOP senator warns NASA budget cuts will help China beat U.S.

Congressional opposition to the president’s proposed budget for NASA stiffened on Thursday, as top Republican appropriators accused the White House of attempting to rob the agency of its mission.

While President Barack Obama retooled NASA’s spending plan last week in an effort to temper growing congressional opposition, leading Republicans on a Senate Appropriations panel said Thursday that the new proposal still fails to address their concerns.

At the same time, a growing number of Democrats also signaled they remain unsatisfied with the president’s recent revisions, which he debuted during a speech at Kennedy Space Center last week.

The fight boils down to how much money is spent on manned spaceflight.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), the ranking member on the Senate’s Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies subcommittee, said Thursday that the White House’s NASA plans would be insufficient as long as they call for an end to the Constellation program, an effort to send astronauts to the moon and Mars that began under President George W. Bush.

“The president’s plan only ensures the United States will be subservient to and reliant on other countries for our access to space,” Shelby said.

“Future generations will learn how the Chinese, Russians and even the Indians took the reins of human space exploration away from the United States,” he said.

Shelby is a longtime supporter of NASA.

NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center generates about $1 billion in economic activity for Alabama, according to the center.

Obama’s first 2011 NASA plan, which he pitched in February, immediately aroused the ire of congressional lawmakers, many of whom disagreed with the administration’s decision to cut funding for manned space missions. In addition to ending the Constellation program, the proposed cuts would have ceased production of the Orion space capsule and its long-range rocket.

The White House’s decision followed an independent commission’s report last year that stated NASA could not meet Constellation’s original goal.

Democrats and Republicans alike said the 2011 budget request would cripple NASA and lead to thousands of lost jobs.

The new budget, introduced last week, allows for the completed construction of Orion — a move the administration says will save jobs — but it would still kill the Constellation program.

Republicans argue that the NASA plan puts too much stock in the untested commercial industry to ferry astronauts to space and might cost the United States its premier standing in the international space race.

Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), a senior member on the Commerce subcommittee, said he found it “ironic” that the White House hoped to reach Mars yet planned to cut manned space flight dollars.

Republicans said some Democrats shared their complaints.

“I do think that some of the Democrats are very unhappy; even the ones who aren’t speaking believe this is really a ‘cosmic road to nowhere,’ ” said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas).

Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) introduced a proposal on Wednesday that would add $1 billion to the president’s NASA budget. The increase would ensure a heavy-lift rocket scheduled for a budget cut in 2011 could continue its testing phase, Conrad said.

Skepticism also seemed evident in Subcommittee Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski’s (D-Md.) opening remarks on Thursday. The senator, a NASA supporter, said she would respond to NASA’s budget only after more hearings and further research.

However, Mikulski did seem to criticize both the Obama and Bush administrations for charging NASA with diametrically opposed missions.

“We cannot reinvent NASA every four years. Every new president can’t have a new NASA agenda,” she said.