The US Congress has passed an Omnibus Appropriations bill funding most domestic programs for the rest of the current fiscal year, but at the last fiscal year’s levels. In so doing, the Congress threatens to severely damage the US space effort, especially the program to return astronauts to the Moon. It is an example of bi-partisan irresponsibility disguised as fiscal austerity.
The problem started in the wake of the mid term elections, when the Democrats took over control of Congress. The Republican leadership of the previous Congress decided to be too clever by half by punting the appropriation bills that had not yet been passed to the current, Democratic controlled Congress. The idea was to occupy the Democrats in finishing up those bills, leaving them less time to deal with their own priorities.
Unfortunately, the Democratic leadership of current Congress refused to play. They decided to fund the parts of the government for which appropriations bills had not been passed, about four hundred sixty three and a half billion dollars in all, in a catch all Omnibus Appropriations bill that would hold spending at last year’s levels. No amendments were allowed that might slow down the passage of the bill.
Under the bill, NASA will receive about a half billion dollar less than was expected, most of which is coming out of the exploration systems account. Since no amendments were allowed, members of Congress who might support adjusting this level upwards had to either swallow the cuts or to vote against the entire bill, risking a government shut down.
This means that it is virtually certain that the development of the Orion space craft and the Ares launch system will be delayed and the overall program stretched out. That means that the “gap” between the end of the shuttle program and the start of Orion, already four years long, will increase. A return to the Moon by the end of the next decade is also placed in jeopardy. The overall cost of the return to the Moon program will therefore increase.
True, there is a silver lining. The Omnibus Appropriations bill strikes out all (or most) earmarks, pork barrel spending that has continued to eat up larger and larger portions of the NASA budget in recent years. It is also hoped that commercial space vehicles, being developed currently under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Systems program, will help fill the widening space craft gap. It is unknown how the bill will affect the COTS program, however.
The long term effects of this budget shortfall are unclear. Currently the return to the Moon program is not in any real danger of being cancelled out right. It enjoys too much bi-partisan support on the Hill. But its resiliency could start to suffer if this year’s budget shortfall is just the start of a process of short changing the program in future years. As the overall cost of the return to the Moon increases and as the goal of returning people to the Moon recedes into the future, the temptation to pull the plug may grow. Should that happen, America’s status as a leader in space exploration will be at an end. The exploration of the Moon and beyond will be left to other countries, especially the Chinese, who have expressed great interest in sending their own explorers to the Moon to exploit its natural resources.
Of course it is not too late to repair things. The office of Senator Bill Nelson (D) Florida has already suggested something of a solution; either to restore the funding short fall in a supplemental bill or else in the FY2008 NASA funding bill. This would be an acceptable solution were it to be done quickly, the better to give NASA managers an idea of how much money they will actually have to spend. The extra money could even be attached to the upcoming War on Terror/Iraq War spending bill.
Fiscal discipline is hardly an issue in this case. NASA’s budget has not enjoyed the kind of solid growth that other parts of the government have managed to achieve. Nor is NASA funding envisioned to grow much beyond the rate of inflation for the foreseeable future. Most polling data, in any case, suggest that people would support a NASA budget that is at one percent of over all federal spending. It is currently at .6 percent of that figure.
What is at issue, though, is not only NASA’s space exploration program, but all the other things that the space agency is tasked with doing, including science, aeronautics, and support for the nascent commercial space sector. Will NASA be given the resources to do these things? Or will space funding continue to be anemic, short changing these efforts, due to petty, budget politics? What choice is made will write future history for generations to come.