NASA On Defense

After President Obama unveiled his budget in 2010, I wrote a blog about how the U.S. space program had been taking its lumps in the Congress. A year later the story is much the same.

As the Shuttle Discovery is on the launch pad today at Kennedy Space Center, the Washington, D.C. future does not seem rosy for NASA, which for years was a crown jewel of American ingenuity and achievement.

NASA’s Administrator Charles Bolden is a well-liked fellow, but not regarded on Capitol Hill as a heavyweight – and in times of tight budgets, Bolden just doesn’t move many people who are on the fence.

A week ago, NASA took its lumps in the GOP budget cutting bill that made it through the House. At first, the GOP shielded the space agency from sizeable cuts, but on the floor both parties joined to change that.

For example, Democrats and Republicans pulled almost $300 million out of NASA and shifted that to grants for local police in the popular COPS program.

NASA was lucky that so many Republicans defected during a later vote on $22 billion in extra cuts, because those reductions would have gone across-the-board, and hit the space agency in the chops.

When I started covering the space program in the 1980’s, NASA’s budget was about 1% of the overall federal budget. Now it is less than one-half of one percent – and threatening to get even smaller.

It hasn’t helped that American space policy has zigged and zagged among different packages of goals from administration to administration, as the budget slowly increased, but always seemed under siege.

With the space shuttle now almost retired, the big question in the halls of Congress isn’t how fast the US will build a shuttle replacement, but rather how fast lawmakers can scramble to get a retired shuttle vehicle into a local museum in their district.

During budget debate last week in the House, one freshman GOP lawmaker said he would rather spend taxpayer dollars just about anywhere else than the “slush fund” at NASA.

That’s not exactly the words that NASA officials want to see used in a descriptive manner about their agency, a far cry from the idol-like treatment of astronauts like John Glenn or Neil Armstrong.

One telling detail from the President’s budget plan for NASA next year is that $548 million of the $18.7 billion budget would be used to boost the pension fund of workers at United Space Alliance, the prime space shuttle contractor.

Why? Because those workers are being laid off as NASA moves into a different era, with fewer workers at Kennedy Space Center.