NASA likely to weather political scrutiny
Columbia tragedy prompts new look at space exploration
By Sean Loughlin
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The U.S. space program, under fresh scrutiny in the wake of the Columbia disaster, enjoys bipartisan support on Capitol Hill, backing that appears unlikely to diminish significantly even as some lawmakers raise questions about the safety of manned space exploration.
Amid relatively flat budgets for NASA in recent years, the support is sometimes more rhetorical than financial, but with key facilities in big states that are home to powerful lawmakers and an almost mystical appeal to both the political and national psyche, NASA appears poised to weather this latest crisis.
In the days after the space shuttle Columbia broke up on re-entry, President Bush vowed that the United States would return to space, and leading lawmakers came forward to pledge their support for the agency, despite concerns over whether safety had been compromised in an effort to hold down costs.
"There's a certain romanticism associated with exploration of space, which is one of the major factors why we'll continue," said Sen. John McCain, chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.
Wednesday, McCain's committee is to take part in a joint House-Senate hearing focusing on the shuttle disaster, in which all seven crew members were killed, but also looking at the broader question of space exploration. The hearing promises to fix a spotlight on reports and comments from years past in which experts warned of staffing shortages and funding cuts.
For example, one 2000 report from the General Accounting Office -- the investigative arm of Congress -- warned that staff cuts were "jeopardizing" NASA's shuttle operations.
Still, no lawmaker has drawn an explicit connection between NASA's budget, which has seen little growth since the mid-1990s, and the accident February 1. McCain has released numbers showing that Congress has given NASA about what it has requested in recent years.
But the renewed congressional interest in NASA appears certain to reopen a debate that has sputtered on-and-off for decades on whether the dangers of manned space flight are worth the risks, and whether NASA will see a new infusion of funds. One question that is almost certain to be raised is whether manned missions will continue, though many lawmakers say they expect they will.
The debate, which last raged in 1986 after the Challenger disaster, unfolds in a time marked by tighter budgets, terrorism threats and a renewed sense of patriotism.
"NASA represents something important in the national psyche," said Brian Riedl, a senior budget analyst at the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank. "Given that, there isn't a lot of hunger to cut NASA substantially, nor to cripple their ability to explore space."
There's a more practical aspect to why NASA probably won't be on the chopping block -- its tentacles reach into many states, providing jobs and boosting economies in dozens of communities. Consider just three of NASA's facilities: the Johnson Space Center in Texas, the Kennedy Space Center in Florida and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. Those centers employ thousands of people, and the agency awards billions of dollars in private contracts each year.
NASA does business with some of nation's largest private contractors, including Boeing Co., Lockheed Martin Corp. and Thiokol Corp. Those contractors -- which also do substantial work for the Defense Department -- are big campaign contributors. Since 1990, the defense aerospace industry alone has contributed about $36 million to candidates and political parties, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks political donations.
Despite such muscle, a look at NASA's budget over the past two decades doesn't suggest the agency is some sort of golden child when it comes to divvying up federal dollars. And the aerospace industry is no different from dozens of others that dole out campaign funds and maintain an army of lobbyists to fight for their interests on Capitol Hill.
Riedl, the budget analyst at the Heritage Foundation, said NASA was typical of many federal agencies in the mid-to-late 1990s in that it saw little, if any, increase to its budget. During the past three to four years, when federal spending in general has gone up, Riedl said, most money has gone for defense and various social programs.
"NASA hasn't been one of the places where they've seen the largest increases," he said.
After Columbia's loss, lawmakers promised to give the agency all it needs to recover from the disaster and to ensure the safety of future missions.
Some observers ask what concrete benefits the country gets from its investment in space exploration. NASA's budget stands at about $15 billion, a significant sum, but by no means the largest item in an overall federal budget that exceeds $2.2 trillion.
But looking at NASA's budget from a cost-benefit perspective doesn't appear to be a particularly popular pastime among lawmakers.
For one thing, it's hard to quantify. Various scientists have different opinions about the benefits of experiments in space. And some lawmakers suggest that the greatest benefit of space exploration has little to do with dollars and cents, but a lot to do with the nation's sense of adventure and discovery.
"I think there's strong support, strong bipartisan support, to continue, aggressively, manned space flight," said Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback, chairman of the Commerce Subcommittee on Space, Science and Technology. "Now we need to look at how we're going to do that and how we make safety the premiere issue."