NASA and Future Funding?

The Nov. 2 midterm U.S. congressional elections gave NASA a new House appropriations “cardinal” and a tight-fisted Republican majority in the House that might scuttle plans for an extra space shuttle flight next summer.

NASA needs $600 million to keep the shuttle program running long enough to send one more shuttle-load of supplies aloft to keep the International Space Station stocked until commercial cargo carriers come online. The Democrat-controlled House authorized the mission, but NASA still does not have a Fiscal 2011 funding appropriation.

Unless the post-election lame duck session – controlled by the outgoing Democratic majority – finds a way to fund the STS-135 mission, it will be a tempting cash cow next January as the Republican majority looks for ways to match their belt-tightening campaign rhetoric with legislative action.

Panel turnover

With Senate Democrats retaining their majority, so far the clearest change in congressional space leadership comes on the House Appropriations subcommittee on commerce, justice, science and related agencies, which funds NASA. With the turnover, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) becomes the panel chairman.

A change in the committee leadership was inevitable, since Chairman Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.) was defeated in his primary bid for re-election. Representing the area around NASA’s Langley Research Center, Wolf has been a strong supporter of the NASA aeronautics program conducted there, and he has generally backed the agency’s other efforts.

Shortly before the election, Wolf registered a strong public objection to Administrator Charles Bolden’s plans to visit China and meet with its human-spaceflight officials. A vocal opponent of the Chinese regime on human rights and military issues, Wolf cautioned the NASA leader that China’s interests are not compatible with those of the U.S.

The meeting went ahead anyway, after Bolden stressed that he was not planning to enter any cooperative space agreements with China. But with Wolf as a powerful appropriations “cardinal,” any plans NASA might have had for expanding cooperation with the cash-rich Chinese space program are likely to stay on the shelf.

Gordon retires

The House Science and Technology Committee also will lose its chairman with the retirement of Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.). The Republican takeover of the House gives Ralph Hall (R-Texas) first shot at the full-committee chair. A former Democrat and the most senior member of the House, Hall has generally worked with committee Democrats in pushing back against the Obama administration’s plans for a dramatic shift to commercial space operations.

At the subcommittee level, the outgoing chair of the House space and aeronautics panel – Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.) – is ahead in a nail-biting contest for re-election over Republican Jesse Kelly, a favorite of the conservative Tea Party. Ranking Republican Pete Olson of Texas is in line to take the chair regardless, but the subcommittee includes Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), a China-basher who has held the job in the past, and James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), who has chaired the full Science and Technology Committee. Sensenbrenner, however, is more likely to move into the House Judiciary Committee chair.

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