Legislation aims to restore funds for aeronautics R&D

 - October 2, 2006, 4:54 AM

Before it adjourned for its summer recess, the House of Representatives overwhelmingly voted to authorize an extra $1.3 billion for NASA over the next two years to fund earlier cuts in aeronautics research.

While NASA can trace its roots to the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics, which was chartered in 1915, in recent years aeronautical research and development has been sliding ever further into a backseat to NASA’s high-profile space efforts.

After the Bush Administration slashed NASA’s funding for science and aeronautics programs two years in a row, in late July the House passed the NASA Authorization Act of 2005 (H.R.3070) by a vote of 383-15 just days before the launch of the Space Shuttle Discovery. Leaders of both parties expressed concern that the moon to Mars mission was draining money from more earthbound endeavors.

Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.), chairman of the House Science Committee, said the bill makes it clear that NASA is a multimission agency capable of working on many different projects at one time. He said that the agency’s programs in space science, Earth science and aeronautics create as much excitement among students and the general public as the human spaceflight programs.

“The bill recognizes the centrality of these programs and authorizes them at a greater level than the Administration has proposed,” said Boehlert. “The bill specifically endorses a Hubble Space Telescope repair mission, assuming that the NASA administrator determines that the mission would not impose any unreasonable risks. And the bill treats these programs as priorities to be evaluated on their own merits, not in terms of the human spaceflight program.”

H.R. 3070 endorses the President’s Vision for Space Exploration and the return of humans to the moon by 2020; ensures NASA’s missions in space science, Earth science and aeronautics remain healthy and robust; endorses a shuttle servicing mission for the Hubble; establishes an awards program to encourage the private sector to develop creative solutions to NASA’s technical challenges; allows NASA to retire the shuttle fleet by the end of 2010; and encourages the agency to launch the crew exploration vehicle (the shuttle’s replacement) as close to 2010 as possible.

White House Planned Reductions

Earlier this year, the White House proposed just $852.3 million out of the total NASA budget of nearly $16.5 billion for aeronautics research in FY2006, down from the FY2005 request of $906.2 million. But it also signaled that further reductions were planned for the next four fiscal years.

Lawmakers acknowledged that NASA is in a period of transition and that Congress needs much more information before it can make a decision about the future of the agency’s programs.

“For that reason, the bill asks NASA to develop a vision for aeronautics, a prioritized list of science missions and a plan for its work force and facilities,” Boehlert said on the House floor before the vote. “We require more joint planning with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Department of Energy.”

Although the authorization bill is a policy statement that provides no funding, it calls for NASA budgets of $17 billion for next year and $17.7 billion for 2007, about $1.3 billion more than the Bush Administration had sought. Similar bipartisan legislation is awaiting passage in the Senate.

But some see the overwhelming vote on H.R.3070 as a sign that House and Senate appropriators will provide NASA with the additional funding. Currently, the House’s appropriation is just $15 million more than the figure President Bush proposed. The Senate’s proposed appropriation is $200 million less than the White House request.

Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) president and CEO John Douglass called H.R.3070 a huge boost for the future of space and aeronautics programs. “In adopting the NASA Authorization Act, the House took significant steps to secure the leadership of the U.S. in peaceful space exploration,” he said. “The bill also advances the critical research conducted by NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate, including programs that support the modernization of the nation’s air transportation system.”

AIA said it worked closely with members of the House Science Committee, the panel that has jurisdiction over NASA’s budget, to keep the exploration plan on schedule and to urge the Administration’s support for a comprehensive long-term plan on aeronautics investments.

“This is the first authorization bill to endorse the President’s Vision for Space Exploration that was announced on January 14 last year,” said Rep. Ken Calvert (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Science Committee’s space and aeronautics subcommittee and the lead author of the bill. “Our bill provides the rules and tools that will enable the agency to maintain its multimission agenda with a balanced approach for human and robotic spaceflight, science and aeronautics.”

In addition, the bill authorizes a prize program, modeled after the X-Prize, aimed at helping NASA stimulate innovation in basic research and technology.