NASA reels from budget request cuts

Appropriators in the House of Representatives have slashed deeply into the president's budget request for NASA, putting into question funding for agency information technology projects for the next year.

Last week the House appropriations subcommittee overseeing NASA approved a bill that would give NASA $12.3 billion for fiscal 2000, which is $1.4 billion below current NASA funding and $1.3 billion less than what President Clinton requested when he submitted his budget proposal to Congress earlier this year. An amendment passed on Friday by the full Appropriations Committee restored $400 million, including $75 million for a future Mars mission, but left many programs still hurting. The bill now would fund NASA at $1 billion below its current level.

NASA insiders and observers were rattled by news of the cuts, which they say threaten IT proj-ects, such as a major information system for a study of the Earth, as well as future IT innovations at the agency. But Capitol Hill leadership defends the cuts as being in line with spending limits agreed to by Congress and the president in 1997. "There's nothing that would not be affected," said NASA spokesman Brian Dunbar about the original $1.3 billion cut. "It's such a devastating cut."

The cuts from the president's budget proposal run across a host of programs planned or under way for the agency.

The bill approved last week deletes a $150 million request for future "missions" of the Earth Observing System, a broad-based NASA program that uses satellites and ground-based equipment to monitor the Earth's climate change and other features. The bill also would snip away $50 million from the information system at the core of that program, leaving it funded at $191 million for next fiscal year.

Additionally, the bill eliminates the president's requests for the following:

* $35 million for Triana, a spacecraft program that would explore how solar radiation affects the Earth.

* $20 million for the LightSAR program, which would use space-based radar signals to study the surface of the Earth.

* $50 million for NASA's Contour project to study comets.

The bill also slices off $60 million each from two central space exploration programs: Discovery, funded at $18 million, and Explorer, funded at $47 million. Moreover, it gives $2.4 billion to the International Space Station project, $100 million less than the president had requested.

"Obviously, if we're taking a cut in mission support, everything's going to get affected, and that includes IT," Dunbar said.

Elizabeth Morra, spokeswoman for the House Appropriations Committee, said the cuts are necessary, given spending limits put in place in 1997 when the president and Congress agreed to a program for capping the budget. She said NASA is not alone in enduring cuts to its budget proposal.

"In this particular bill, you have veterans programs competing with space programs competing with housing programs. Spending is extremely tight," she said. Other programs, such as the federal Community Development Block Grant program, have been trimmed drastically, she said. Even though all agencies' budgets are suffering, NASA officials remain contentious. In a prepared statement, NASA Administrator Daniel Goldin had particularly stern words regarding the cuts. "Up until now, NASA has always stepped up to the budgetary challenge," he said. "This time the NASA team plans to fight. These cuts would gut space exploration. They may force the closure of one to three NASA centers, and significant layoffs would most certainly follow." Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.), chairman of the House Science Committee, dismissed the administration's budget cries as "scare tactics." "Three years ago, $11.6 billion was good enough for the vice president and music to Dan Goldin's ears," Sensenbrenner said in a prepared statement. "Now, $12.3 billion is a 'disaster.' Their claims that NASA will have to close centers and initiate layoffs in response to the [bill] are disingenuous at best and purposely inflammatory at worst. These are scare tactics, pure and simple, and should be rejected as such," Sensenbrenner said. Some NASA outsiders, however, remain concerned over the cuts and the ramifications on NASA IT projects. "It appears as if our government is turning its back on space exploration, which is traditionally where the technology innovations have come first," said Anne Pierce, director of programs at the National Space Society, an advocate of space exploration. How NASA funding will be handled in the Senate remains unclear. But given the barrier of spending caps, Capitol Hill appropriators have little choice but to make cuts across all agencies. So any efforts to add money to NASA programs would have to be offset with cuts from programs elsewhere in the budget, Morra said. "There's just not a lot of places to go to cut," she said.

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