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Senate punts on NASA appropriations bill

atlantisshuttle.jpgWhen it comes to funding NASA, lawmakers are lately working down to the wire. The night before the October recess, Congress passed an Authorization Act for the agency, mandating a $19 billion budget for FY2011. But legislators were unable to pass the appropriations bill needed to actually provide the funds, instead relying on a continuing resolution that froze funding at FY2010 levels and prohibited the agency from terminating programs or starting new ones.

Congress must now decide how, and for how long, it intends to fund NASA before the continuing resolution expires on 3 December.

“I think the almost certain next step is going to be another continuing resolution,” said Senator David Vitter (R-LA) during a Senate subcommittee on science and space hearing in Washington D.C. on 1 December regarding the implementation of the Authorization Act.

A proposed short-term continuing resolution would fund programs through 18 December, but Congress could also continue funding NASA at its current level—$18.7 billion—for another year, which, Vitter pointed out, is a less than 2% difference from the amount provided in the Authorization Act. Unfortunately, this stop-gap procedure would also leave a number of critcal issues unresolved.

The Authorization Act, which originated in the Senate, ordered an additional shuttle flight beyond the two currently funded before the fleet retires. Subcommittee members were concerned that, if a long-term continuing resolution were passed, the agency would scrap the launch due to its $500 million estimated cost.

“It is NASA’s complete intention to fly another flight,” said Elizabeth Robinson, the agency’s chief financial officer, adding that the continuing resolution would provide enough funding for a third launch. She did not specify where in the NASA budget the money would come from.

When asked by the subcommittee chairman, Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), what the agency would cut if it had to work without a $300 million increase, Robinson replied that NASA Administrator Charles Bolden had already decided to delay the planned infrastructure modernization at Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, budgeted at $430 million for FY2011.

Nelson pressed further, asking how the agency would prioritize funding if cuts are more dramatic.

“It would be a truly drastic situation,” said Robinson, if Congress decided to roll back NASA’s budget to 2008 levels, or $17.3 billion, which some legislators have suggested. “We would have to look very hard at places where we could instigate those kinds of savings,” she added.

Complicating the picture is the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), a 6.5-meter space-based telescope meant to replace Hubble as NASA’s flagship mission. In November, an independent panel determined that JWST would require $1.5 billion more than currently expected and would see at least a year’s delay. Their report stated that NASA would need to provide an additional $250 million in FY2011 to meet this deadline and that further postponement would increase the price.

When subcommittee members brought up the report, Robinson said it was unlikely that NASA would be able to find the increased funds this year. The agency is currently doing analysis of its budget and will present details in the president’s FY2012 budget, expected to be released in February, she said.

But Robinson stressed that NASA would ultimately be looking to Congress to steer the agency’s priorities. “We can’t finalize plans until we have our final funding,” she said.


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