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NASA Pleads for Full Funding, Citing Growing Delays for Human Flight

In arguing for full fiscal 2008 funding for NASA today, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin raised the specter of a growing “gap” in manned space flight missions between the time the Space Shuttle is retired in 2010 and the start of its successor program.

“This year above all years we need your help,” Griffin told a largely sympathetic Senate Commerce space subcommittee at a budget oversight hearing today. Anything less than full funding would cause “lasting damage” to NASA plans to resume manned space flights, he said.

Members of the panel, chaired by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) — a former astronaut — vowed to press for full funding for the next fiscal year and to fight for additional funds in supplemental spending bills in the coming weeks.

“We will try to increase funding … either in supplemental or in fiscal year 2008,” Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) told Griffin.

The Bush administration is requesting $17.3 billion for NASA in fiscal 2008, a three percent increase over its fiscal 2007 request.

But Griffin said Congress’ decision to fund the remainder of fiscal year 2007 through a continuing resolution at fiscal 2006 levels had resulted in a $545 million reduction from the amount the agency had sought in fiscal 2007 — a development that has wreaked havoc with NASA’s timeline for returning humans to space, he said.

While the agency had predicted a four-year gap in U.S. manned space flights beginning when the Space Shuttle fleet is taken offline in 2010, the emerging funding delay could push the introduction of the two shuttle replacements — the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and Ares I Crew Launch Vehicle — back by four to six months, most likely into 2015.

“We accept the will of Congress in [passing] the continuing resolution, but it causes us a lot of pain,” he said.

Members noted that the continuing resolution omitted $1 billion in additional funds for NASA that Hutchison and Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) had secured for the agency in a fiscal 2007 spending bill that passed the Senate. NASA has major facilities in both Senators’ states.

Hutchison also noted that the now-enacted continuing resolution for fiscal 2007 omitted language she had helped place that would have provided NASA with flexibility to transfer funds from one program to another.

Griffin cited the lack of flexibility as an additional problem the agency faced in dealing with the budget shortfall. Hutchison and Nelson asked Griffin to provide the subcommittee with information on how much flexibility NASA would need to transfer funds, as well as estimates on how much money would shorten the human flight gap.

The gap also threatens the NASA workforce, Griffin noted, saying, “Our human space flight expertise will be depleted.”

Extending the gap also makes it more likely the United States will have to purchase more space services from other governments in the interval. “I find it unseemly for the United States to have to do such a thing,” he said, but “the money only goes so far.”

On a separate matter, Griffin assured Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) that the agency was reviewing its screening procedures after one of its astronauts earlier this month was charged with attempted murder in a highly publicized kidnapping attempt. The murder charges were later dropped.

“Clearly we failed as an institution to recognize that she was very troubled,” Griffin said.

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