By Marc Kaufman and Dan Eggen Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 19, 2010; 12:09 AM
NASA’s human space program, long the agency’s biggest public and congressional asset, has become instead its biggest headache.
As never before, NASA watchers say, an agency that generally is funded and directed through White House and congressional consensus has become the focus of a brutal, potentially crippling and politically topsy-turvy battle for control that is likely to come to a head next week.
NASA politics have always defied labels. But now a series of unlikely alliances and negotiating positions have left Congress in an especially difficult bind, with the distinct possibility that the fiscal year will end this month without an approved 2011 budget. The result, congressional negotiators and observers say, would be layoffs and a very unpredictable agency future.
A major front in the contest of wills has been funding for commercial rocket and spacecraft companies that can potentially provide inexpensive transport services to the international space station in the years ahead.
President Obama proposed a big boost for that effort in February, initiated under President George W. Bush, but has gotten only tepid support from Democrats until recently and almost universal opposition from Republicans. The House bill awaiting action would give twice as much money to Russia for transporting astronauts and cargo to the space station as it would give to U.S. companies working to build that capacity.
The Senate did pass a compromise authorization NASA bill before the August recess that provided far more funds for commercial spaceflight, although it still halved Obama’s request. The bill directed the agency to instead immediately build a new heavy-lift rocket that can take astronauts to deep space by early 2017.
In doing so, it required the agency to design the project in a way that will benefit certain aggrieved companies and NASA centers – writing the kind of congressional technical blueprint that NASA administrators have long warned about. Nonetheless, the administration has thrown its support behind the bill.
At the same time, NASA is still spending $200 million a month on the Constellation human space program initiated under Bush. A blue-ribbon panel convened by Obama and headed by former Lockheed Martin chairman Norman Augustine concluded last year that Constellation had been underfunded from the start and would not be completed in time to perform some of its intended missions. Obama’s intention to scrap part of the Constellation program, which has already cost taxpayers $10 billion, is what outraged many in Congress to begin with.
A leader of the effort against the Obama plan has been Michael Griffin, the head of NASA under Bush. Griffin has been on the Hill regularly in past months arguing in favor of keeping the full Constellation program, and he has been especially influential in the House, where a Science and Technology subcommittee passed a bill before recess restoring funds to Constellation.
House panel vote delayed
A full House committee vote on the bill was put off at the last minute because, congressional sources say, it would have faced sure death in the Senate. Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Tex.) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) had cobbled together a complex compromise bill that passed by unanimous consent – a procedural move that allows any single senator to kill the bill later if it incorporates significant House changes.
If Congress does not pass a new NASA budget by Sept. 30, congressional staffers say, contractors will begin laying off workers. In addition, the agency could lose out on some of the $3 billion budget increase over three years proposed by the administration.
NASA politics have become both more personal and more focused on where jobs will be won or lost this year. The head of the House authorization subcommittee that supported Constellation is Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who is married to an astronaut. Astronauts are deeply divided on the Constellation-vs.-private-space debate, but the headlines went to Apollo pioneers such as Neil Armstrong, who strongly opposed Obama’s plans.
Meanwhile, budget hawks such as Sen. Richard C. Shelby (R-Ala.) went on the warpath against Obama’s limited privatizing proposals, in part, at least, to keep NASA government jobs at NASA facilities in their states. And Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) , a liberal on most issues, held a fundraiser in Alabama last year, reportedly organized with the help of Shelby, as the Constellation battle was first brewing.
Opponents of the Obama plan have sought to make Elon Musk, founder of the start-up rocket company Space-X, into the villain of the piece. When Griffin was NASA administrator, Musk competed for and won a contract to provide cargo to the international space station, and his company successfully launched a Falcon 9 rocket in June.
Musk’s political donations – about $150,000 since 2003 – to Obama and other Democrats have become an issue, but campaign records show they are matched by contributions to Republicans. They are also dwarfed by campaign donations from large aerospace companies such as Lockheed and ATK that could lose under the Obama plan.
“It’s been quite a propaganda war,” said Musk, who complained that Shelby refused to even meet with him. “You know there is something strange going on when Republicans, who ostensibly should be pro-privatization, are arguing as though they are from the Soviet Politburo. There’s something wrong with that picture.”
Scott Pace, a Bush-era NASA official who now serves as director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute, said the fault lies elsewhere.
“On both political and substantive grounds, the administration has handled the NASA human spaceflight side badly,” he said.
“It’s perfectly reasonable for these companies to come out and say why they think they’re going to succeed,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean the government should take that at face value.”
Given the attacks on Musk and his company, the Senate compromise funding commercial space efforts passed only after Boeing gave congressional staffers a detailed presentation about its own space plans, participants in the negotiations said. The company announced an agreement last week to develop commercial space taxis for the space station.
Unlike conventional NASA contracts – which are “cost plus,” meaning they can and do grow substantially in cost – the commercial contracts do not have the “cost plus” provisions and so are expected to be considerably cheaper.
Meanwhile, the current House version of the NASA budget bill calls for spending more than $900 million in the next three years to buy transport to the space station on Russian Soyuz spacecraft after the space shuttle is grounded next year. The bill would spend half of that for commercial spaceflight.
A group of Nobel laureates, former NASA officials and astronauts wrote a recent public letter to Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chairman of the NASA authorizing committee in the House, saying, “NASA should invest far more in America’s launch industry than it invests in Russia’s launch industry, but the current House Science Committee authorization bill fails this test.”
In an effort to restore a NASA consensus and fund future human space travel, negotiators from the House and Senate have been meeting frequently in recent weeks. Participants say, however, that the sides are dug in and that stalemate is a real possibility.