Spending Panel: Unclear Direction of Manned NASA Flights Adds to Uncertainty

A House appropriations subcommittee has marked up a NASA budget of $19 billion for FY2011, which equals the amount requested by the Administration. That might sound like a stamp of approval for the Administration's plan to replace Constellation with a new space-exploration program, but it's not. That's because the markup comes with an important rider: most of the dollars allocated for exploration can become available to the agency only after Congress enacts an authorization bill that defines what the exploration program should look like. And in a year featuring a congressional budget process more broken than usual that adds even more uncertainty to the budget picture for all of NASA.

"Any major change to the direction of the Nation's space program should come through an authorization passed by Congress and signed into law by the President," Alan Mollohan (D–WV), chair of the House Appropriations Subcommittee for Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies said in a statement yesterday after the markup.

Unfortunately, a determination about the direction of the space program has been effectively on hold for well over a year. First, we waited for the recommendations of the Augustine Commission; next we waited for the Administration to react to those recommendations; and since early this year, we have waited for the authorizing committees to take action. In the meantime, hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars have been invested in procurements and technology development that may or may not have a role in NASA's human exploration future.

So far, there doesn't appear to be any sign of compromise between the White House and opponents of the Administration's plan in Congress, who believe that canceling Constellation and investing in the development of commercial space flight to enable future space missions is a bad idea. As it is, it's unlikely that Congress will complete the budget-approval process—for NASA and most other agencies—before the congressional elections in November, which means that the budgets for most agencies will likely be determined by a continuing resolution.

"If an agreement were to be reached on a compromise before the end of the 2010 fiscal year [30 September], there's a chance that NASA would have its budget approved before the next fiscal year begins," says Marcia Smith, president of the Space and Technology Policy Group and founding editor of SpacePolicyOnline.com. "But that doesn't seem likely."

(Although the appropriators intend to match the Obama request for NASA, the figures for individual programs within the markup for the NASA budget don't match up exactly because the labor costs of several programs have been moved into a common account.)