Astronaut-Senator Misplaces Blame for NASA Budget Cuts

By Jeff Johnson | July 7, 2008 | 8:29 PM EDT

Capitol Hill ( A Senate Democrat - who flew a mission aboard the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1986 when he was a member of the U.S. House - complained Monday that both Republican and Democratic administrations have failed to provide necessary funding for the nation's space exploration program. But government records prove that only President Clinton reduced funding for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

"The last two administrations have been starving NASA of money, and because it didn't have enough to do everything it wanted to do along with its cost overruns on the space station, it was delaying the safety upgrades," said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) on ABC's Good Morning America program. "And there's no excuse for that."

Nelson, whose January 1986 flight aboard the Columbia took place two weeks before the explosion of the Space Shuttle Challenger, said members of Congress could not help but consider what impact budget cuts might have had on safety after the apparent explosion that killed one Israeli and six American astronauts Saturday.

(See Bush proposal)

"Inevitably, there will be a discussion out of this about how much NASA should be funded, should there be another orbiter built?" Nelson said. "Has it been so poorly funded in recent years that maybe, just maybe it wasn't as safe as it should be?" he asked.

Both Bush Administrations Increased NASA's Budget

During a briefing on President Bush's fiscal year 2004 budget Monday, White House Budget Director Mitch Daniels disputed Nelson's claim.

(See Chart)

This administration has increased funding for NASA, increased funding for the shuttle and increased funding for the shuttle maintenance account after a decade of cuts and flat spending," Daniels said. "NASA has been an important priority, and the shuttle specifically, for this president"

Budget records obtained from the Government Printing Office (GPO) support Daniels' claim. According to the documents, President Clinton initially increased the agency's funding by $259 million in 1993, but then cut $715 million from the agency his second year in office. He did not restore the largest portion of the money, $652 million, until three months before he left office in 2001. Clinton's cuts reduced NASA's budget by an aggregate total of $56 million over the course of his eight-year term.

(See proposed NASA budget chart)

George W. Bush has increased NASA's funding in each of his three submitted budgets since taking office. Those increases have totaled $1.216 billion. Bush's father, George H.W. Bush - who was president prior to Clinton - increased NASA expenditures by more than $3.437 billion during his single term from 1989 until January of 1993.

NASA budgets since fiscal year 1992:

    1993 $14.309 billion, existing NASA budget when Clinton took office;
    1994 $14.568 billion, $259 million increase, first Clinton budget;
    1995 $13.853 billion, $715 million decrease;
    1996 $13.885 billion, $32 million increase;
    1997 $13.709 billion, $176 million decrease;
    1998 $13.648 billion, $61 million decrease;
    1999 $13.654 billion, $6 million increase;
    2000 $13.601 billion, $53 million decrease;
    2001 $14.253 billion, $652 million increase;
    2002 $14.892 billion, $639 million increase, first Bush budget;
    2003 $15.000 billion, $108 million increase (estimated);
    2004 $15.469 billion, $469 million increase (proposed);

Nelson, a member of the Senate Science, Technology and Space Subcommittee, was quick to clarify his statements, which some saw as blaming the alleged budget cuts for the apparent explosion that killed Columbia's crew.

"Let's hasten to add that this tragedy doesn't appear to be connected with the delay of any of those safety upgrades," Nelson said.

FY 2004 Bush Budget Holds $469 Million Increase for NASA

As Nelson made his comments, the Government Printing Office was preparing to release President George W. Bush's budget for fiscal year 2004. That budget includes a $469 million increase in the NASA budget, bringing the total to nearly $15.5 billion.

According to bullet points heading the 2004 fiscal year (Oct. 1, 2003 - Sept. 30, 2004) budget chapter on NASA, President Bush's proposal, "Invests in space launch improvements to extend the Space Shuttle's life, to develop technologies for next generation launch systems, and to design a crew transport backup to the Space Shuttle, which would provide an emergency crew return from the Space Station and improve astronaut flight safety."

The text of the chapter explains the president's new approach to managing costs at the space agency:

"In the past, research was cut back rather than reducing unneeded infrastructure, or containing costs on large programs like the Space Station and the Shuttle," the document states. "To maintain robust research efforts, the president's budget aggressively implements reforms to control Space Station costs and invests in activities to improve flight safety and extend the life of the Space Shuttle."

A performance assessment of the shuttle program referenced in the budget rated it as "moderately successful." The evaluation determined that "Shuttle operations are well managed, but investments to improve the shuttle suffer from inadequate planning and poor cost management." The probe recommended that NASA track the impact of investments on the shuttle's "operational life, flight safety and facilities conditions," and that the agency should do a better job controlling costs.

White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said Monday afternoon that the administration would not rule out increasing the NASA budget even more, if necessary. He cautioned, however, that two days is not enough time after the shuttle catastrophe to make such determinations.

"I don't think anybody can reach any conclusions about funding levels and the disaster; the effect on the Columbia," Fleischer said. "Everything needs to be looked into in order to make determinations, but no one can make any conclusions this quickly after the disaster."

Multiple calls to the office of Senator Nelson were not returned before the publication of this story.

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