A proposal in Congress to close NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt and move its 11,000 jobs to California has dumbfounded space scientists, who say the idea makes little sense from either a scientific or a cost-cutting point of view.
"This is a fix, and I'm not sure anything is broken," said Dr. Robert E. Williams, director of the Space Telescope Science Institute, in Baltimore.
The surprise move by a House panel Monday night was not so much an attack on Goddard as a gesture of frustration as the panel moved to meet its budget-cutting goals, the chairman said yesterday.
Rep. Jerry Lewis, the California Republican who heads one of the 13 House panels charged with making the spending decisions to carry out the GOP goal of a balanced budget, says he squeezed $130 million from Goddard and two other National Aeronautics and Space Administration space centers because he couldn't get the votes to curb proposed increases in veterans programs.
"I've got a sacred cow on my hands," Mr. Lewis said. He said yesterday that the best hope for Goddard probably lies in the Senate, which is less sensitive to lobbying pressure from veterans groups.
The trade-off between space programs and medical care for veterans makes sense perhaps only in the context of Congress' peculiar budget process, in which often unrelated categories are grouped together and must compete for the same funds.
Under the terms of the budget resolution passed by Congress last month, Mr. Lewis' subcommittee was given $61.7 billion to spend on programs run by the Departments of Housing and Urban Development, and Veterans Affairs, as well as nearly 20 independent agencies.
Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, the ranking Democrat on the Senate's counterpart panel, sent reassurances to Goddard employees and vowed to fight for the facility.
Mr. Lewis' proposal would close Goddard within three years and move its operations to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., which adjoins Mr. Lewis' congressional district.
But scientists say the two operations are ill-matched, with few opportunities to consolidate.
Goddard's primary mission is to track and operate satellites in Earth orbit, including the Hubble Space Telescope. It also conducts astrophysics research and manages communications with the manned space shuttles.
JPL develops, tracks and operates robotic explorations of the planets, including coming missions to Jupiter, Mars and Saturn.
The two facilities operate tracking networks around the world, the skills of their personnel are different, and there are few scientists who cross those disciplinary boundaries.
"I don't see where there is much money to save by this," said Dr. Paul D. Feldman, professor of physics and astronomy at the Johns Hopkins University, whose research has taken him to both centers. "You would have to put new facilities in at JPL to do what Goddard is doing now."
Which begs a logistical question: How would they pack the 11,000 employees who now work on Goddard's 1,200-acre Greenbelt campus, onto the 177-acre JPL campus, where work space and parking for its 6,700 employees are already scarce?
"The whole idea, frankly, sounds silly to me," said Dr. Arthur N. Davidsen, a Johns Hopkins University astrophysicist who headed the recent Hopkins Ultraviolet Telescope project on the space shuttle Endeavor.
The proposal by Mr. Lewis took Goddard's acting director, Joseph H. Rothenberg, by surprise, and he spent much of yesterday trying to reassure employees and contractors. "I see it . . . just as political maneuvering in order to position us into trying to come up with other ways of achieving budget cuts," he said.
Further cuts would be "an impossible assignment," Mr. Rothenberg said. The 10 NASA centers have already undergone six months of "zero-based" budget reviews, and have consolidated some operations that make the centers interdependent. Further cuts would "put a hole in our ability to do the job."
Also targeted by Mr. Lewis for closing are the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., and the Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va. The proposal would cut NASA's budget by $130 million more than the Clinton proposal for fiscal 1996.
Mr. Lewis scoffed at charges by Maryland lawmakers that he was trying to advance his own political fortunes by moving Goddard's jobs to a NASA facility near his district. Maryland's delegation geared up to fight back, summoning Daniel S. Goldin, the NASA administrator, and Gov. Parris N. Glendening to a meeting in Washington today.
"I don't think this is a serious proposal, but that doesn't mean we're not taking it seriously," said Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, the Maryland Democrat whose district includes the space flight center.
Democratic Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes called it "a preposterous recommendation. I don't expect it to happen."
The Goddard Space Flight Center opened in 1959, the same year it captured the first images of Earth, from the Explorer VI satellite.