tampabay.com

NASA boldly goes nowhere

By TIMES WIRES
Published February 6, 2007


America's space program will suffer a serious setback if Congress doesn't undo cuts in a misguided House spending plan.

The plan is a stopgap drafted by the House's Democratic leaders to cover the rest of the budget year. It would slash $400-million - more than 10 percent - from the money NASA has been counting on to continue development of a successor to the space shuttle. With those Democratic leaders permitting only limited debate, the House approved the plan Wednesday.

Unless the dollars for NASA are restored, the expected four-year gap - already too long - between the scheduled 2010 retirement of the shuttle and the launch of its successor, Orion, could widen by another year. That's another year that U.S. astronauts would be grounded.

A longer gap would further erode America's leadership in space exploration. It would delay the breakthroughs in science and technology that accompany spaceflight. Such breakthroughs have played a valuable role in this country's economic growth and global competitiveness.

And with the military importance of space growing, national security also would suffer from a longer gap. Other countries, including Russia and China, are charging ahead with their manned space programs.

NASA Administrator Michael Griffin has warned that his agency could lose much of its skilled work force if the interval between the shuttle's retirement and Orion's launch is too long. That's what happened in the 1970s, when the agency hemorrhaged talent in the gap between the Apollo and shuttle programs.

House Republicans are griping that they didn't have any input into the stopgap spending plan. It's hard to feel too sorry for them; their failure to pass a budget when they still had control on Capitol Hill opened the way for Democrats to put together their own plan reflecting their own priorities.

But in the case of NASA's funding, those priorities are shortsighted. The cut would be harder to fault if House leaders were reserving the dollars for deficit reduction, instead of steering it to other parts of the budget. And because Orion is envisioned as the vehicle that eventually will carry astronauts to the moon and Mars, the cut looks suspiciously like a slap at one of President Bush's signature initiatives.

The House plan is headed to the Senate, where Florida Democrat Bill Nelson - a staunch advocate for the space program - is among several members seeking to undo NASA's cut. If they fail, they will need to seize other opportunities to restore funds for the agency. Those could come in a supplemental spending bill, or in the budget for the year that begins Oct. 1.

There are too many benefits to moving ahead on the next generation of space vehicles, and too many costs to delaying it.