Hefty cuts by House jar NASA

Officials fear loss of jobs in Md., Va., if funds not restored

Vote trims $924 million

Losing skilled minds called worse than canceling missions

September 10, 1999|By Frank D. Roylance | Frank D. Roylance,SUN STAFF

The Republican-controlled Congress is moving to throttle down the Clinton administration's proposed NASA budget for fiscal year 2000, and the threatened cuts have space scientists gasping for breath.

The House Appropriations Committee voted yesterday to cut more than $924 million from NASA's proposed $13.7 billion budget for fiscal year 2000, which begins Oct. 1. Last night, the full House passed the bill, with the funding cuts intact, on a 235-187 vote.

If the money is not restored in negotiations with the Senate, space agency officials said, canceled space missions at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt alone would mean the loss of 2,500 government and contractors' jobs, half of them in Maryland and Virginia.

Another 200 jobs are on the line at the Johns Hopkins University's Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, and its contractors. APL's plans to send one spacecraft to the planet Mercury and another to study a series of comets during the next decade are among those facing cancellation.

But worse than the lost missions, scientists say, would be the scattering of so many of the agency's skilled minds, and a hobbling of its future research efforts in space and technology.

"With these high technology programs, you just can't turn them on and off as if it were McDonald's," said Stamatios M. Krimigis, head of APL's space department. "You need highly skilled people, good organization. And, particularly in this economy, once you lose them, you're not going to get them back. The country is really going to lose a lot of capability if these cuts go through."

Rep. Steny H. Hoyer, a Southern Maryland Democrat, predicted that most or all of the money would be restored when House and Senate negotiators meet to work out the final version of the bill. "Nobody on this committee supports these cuts, not even the chairman," Hoyer said.

The Senate has not yet written its version of the bill. NASA's fate may not be resolved until later this fall, when Republican congressional leaders will have to come to terms with President Clinton on a host of tax and spending issues.

The House Appropriations Committee had little choice but to cut, and to cut deeply, said committee spokeswoman Elizabeth Morra.

The Balanced Budget Act passed in 1997 imposed five years of spending caps on Congress. The budget may now be in balance, but Congress is still stuck with the old caps, and neither party wants to be the first to raise them and start spending the surplus.

The prescribed spending levels were "very unrealistic," Morra said. "They didn't account for inflation or new programs, and we are finding ourselves in a huge bind. We're having trouble with all our [spending] bills."

Jim O'Connor, a spokesman for Republican James T. Walsh, of New York, chairman of the subcommittee that originated the NASA budget cuts, said Walsh's goal in the budget wrangling is "to restore as much as possible for the NASA budget."

"The way he sees it, it's a nine-inning game, and we're in about the third or fourth inning."

NASA Administrator Daniel S. Goldin has called the proposed cuts "devastating" and "a knife in the heart of employee morale."

Goldin had prided himself in his agency's cooperation with congressional demands for tighter budgets in recent years. Billion-dollar unmanned space science missions are history. Goldin's "cheaper, better, faster" mantra produced a series of quickly mounted and relatively low-cost missions. They have returned remarkable data from Mars and the asteroids, and space astronomy programs that have advanced man's understanding of the universe and its origins.

It has all been done while NASA's annual budgets have declined for seven years, and inflation has cut its buying power by a third.

"This time the NASA team plans to fight," Goldin said. NASA has urged everyone in the space science community to speak up against the cuts.

Andrea Dupree, a scientist at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and past president of the American Astronomical Society, said, "We've never had them [Congress] go after space science in this way before. Maybe they are playing games with the budget, and we are a political football.

"It's very puzzling. We have enormous public interest in what's going on, outstanding results, and both the scientists and Dan Goldin have made every effort to cut back costs and achieve a very robust flight schedule."

The cuts threaten to erode the nation's competitive advantage in science and technology research and discourage the next generation of space scientists, Dupree said.

NASA has faced bigger threats to its budget. Efforts, which failed, to cancel the International Space Station would have meant the loss of $2 billion, said NASA spokesman Brian Dunbar. But "this is different in that it really affects science programs. A lot of programs would be canceled, and it probably would force us to look at closing centers."

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