NASA, White House officials share budget concerns
BY STEPHEN CLARK
Posted: December 2, 2010
Responding to lawmakers' worries over the implementation of NASA's exploration manifesto, the agency's senior financial official and President Obama's science advisor Wednesday blamed a stalled government spending package and budget anxiety for the sluggish start of new programs.
But members of the Senate Commerce Committee alleged the Obama administration of purposely putting off the implementation of a new heavy-lift rocket and space capsule.
"The question at this hearing is, is the administration going to be a full active, positive partner in implementing that bill? From my perspective, the evidence so far is that the answer is no," said Sen. David Vitter, R-La.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., chairman of panel's space and aeronautics subcommittee, said he thought Vitter's concerns were "well-founded."
Congress spent the summer and fall authoring and passing a NASA authorization act, a compromise bill that won lawmaker approval just before the election recess. President Obama signed the bill into law in October.
Nelson said "there was too much evidence that the administration was not helping" during the summer's negotiations on the authorization bill, which provided a budget blueprint calling for about $19 billion in funding for fiscal year 2011.
But Congress has not passed a formal appropriations bill for the fiscal year, which began Oct. 1. Federal agencies have been operating under a continuing resolution, which funds programs near last year's budget levels.
"With the continuing resolutions, we still have some uncertainty about the ultimate funding level," said Elizabeth Robinson, NASA's chief financial officer. "We're trying to quantify what it means to hedge our bets, in other words, in case there's a drastic change in funding level.
NASA's continuing resolution expires Friday, but Congress is expected to pass an extension this week. The resolution provides the agency with annual funding of more than $18.7 billion, about $276 million shy of the level stipulated in this year's authorization act.
Vitter described the difference as "trivial" if NASA receives an extended long-term continuing resolution.
"That funding level for the next fiscal year will be right about at where it is in the authorization bill," Vitter said. "This should be a simple task if we really all want to accomplish it. So the proof will be in the pudding if it gets done."
NASA is pacing its spending under the continuing resolution because if the agency's final budget is less than the temporary line of $18.7 billion, the cuts will have to be made up in the remaining months of the fiscal year, exacerbating the reduction's effects in the short-term.
Robinson said NASA could make up the $276 million shortfall in the continuing resolution by carving out a portion of this year's planned investments in upgrades to launch infrastructure at the Kennedy Space Center. Such a move would not directly affect development of a heavy-lift rocket, exploration spaceship, or commercial human transportation systems.
"We want to see this law implemented without a lot of griping, moaning and groaning if we're able to get that kind of appropriation," Nelson said.
But NASA might have to get by with even tighter purse strings.
The incoming House Republican leadership has vowed to reduce discretionary government spending to 2008 levels, a move that would reset NASA's budget to about $17.4 billion.
"It would be a truly drastic situation at that point, and we would be looking to be able to shed expenses wherever we could," Robinson said.
Republican lawmakers from key NASA states and districts have not weighed in on such a cut to the agency's budget, which officials say would threaten an already-tight timetable for commercial crew development and deep space exploration efforts.
The authorization act calls for more than $1.6 billion this year for a shuttle-derived heavy-lift rocket called the Space Launch System. Another $1.1 billion would be directed toward the development of a multi-purpose crew vehicle based on the Orion capsule from the Constellation program, which was terminated in the White House budget proposal in February.
Congress directed NASA to develop the heavy-lift rocket and crew capsule to be operational by the end of 2016. The vehicles would be used on human exploration missions beyond low Earth orbit.
NASA officials expect commercial crew transportation spacecraft to be ready by 2015, and the authorization act calls for more than $300 million in start-up funding this year.
One issue slowing implementation of the new programs is leftover language from last year's appropriations bill restricting NASA from ending or creating projects within the Constellation program. Congress inserted the requirement into last year's budget to prevent the White House and NASA from making major changes to the agency's exploration plans without input from legislators.
The ongoing continuing resolution is essentially a sustainment of the 2010 budget, including the Constellation language that officials say is restricting their ability to adapt to new policy.
Lawmakers could insert a clause in the next continuing resolution extension to remove the effect of the Constellation language, permitting NASA managers to be more nimble in the execution of the authorization act.
But Robinson said only a formal appropriations bill for 2011 will remove all doubt from the minds of NASA and Obama administration officials.
"The real issue is not whether we can pursue a specific activity," Robinson told the Senate committee. "It's how much we can pursue it. For example, will we get funding at a specific level for heavy-lift (rocket development)? What will that funding level be?"
"You just can't finalize your plans until you have the overall funding," Robinson said.