Senators question Bush's space plans

Lawmakers back ideas but are cautious of cost, effect on NASA workers

January 29, 2004|By Gwyneth K. Shaw | Gwyneth K. Shaw,ORLANDO SENTINEL

WASHINGTON - In the first hearings since President Bush unveiled his new agenda for space exploration, senators said yesterday they like his ideas but are anxious to get the details on what it will cost - and what will have to be sacrificed - to send humans back to the moon and beyond.

Members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee raised questions about the long-term price tag for the proposal, whether using only robots would make more sense and how the shift might affect NASA's workers.

"I think the American public is justifiably apprehensive about starting another major space initiative for fear that they will learn later that it will require far more sacrifice, or taxpayer dollars, than originally discussed or estimated," said U.S. Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, the committee's chairman.

National Aeronautics and Space Administration chief Sean O'Keefe said much more will become clear on Monday, when the president's budget request is released. In his proposal Jan. 14, Bush called on Congress to give NASA $1 billion in new money over the next five years.

O'Keefe said last week that the agency's 2005 request is expected to total about $16.2 billion. The 2004 budget, passed last week by the Senate, is about $15.5 billion.

When lawmakers see the five-year budget plan, O'Keefe asserted, they will see a prudent roadmap for "Project Constellation," as the effort will be known.

"Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA, and the nine other members of Maryland's congressional delegation, are sharply questioning NASA's cancellation of the final service mission to the Hubble Space Telescope.

The mission, planned for 2006, fell victim to funding shortfalls due to the agency's plan to go to Mars and new safety rules for astronauts after the breakup last February of the Columbia shuttle.

"The scientific returns we have received from Hubble's service thus far have exceeded our expectations," the delegation argued in a letter, released yesterday, addressed to O'Keefe.

A spokesman for Mikulski refused to say last night whether the space agency has responded to the letter.

Without the service mission to replace aging gyroscopes and batteries, scientists have predicted the telescope will stop operating by 2007, three years earlier than planned.

The scientific operations of the telescope, considered one of the finest scientific instruments ever built, are conducted at the Space Telescope Scientist Institute, located at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and managed by the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.

The Orlando Sentinel is a Tribune Publishing newspaper. Sun staff writers contributed to this article.

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