President Bush details space budget amid mixed reaction

President Bush detailed a proposal Wednesday to spend $12 billion over the next five years for space exploration, including an additional $1 billion for NASA in his fiscal 2005 budget submission.

Under the pending fiscal 2004 omnibus spending bill, NASA would receive about $15.5 billion. The White House said Bush's proposal would boost NASA's budget by 5 percent for the next three years, and then by 1 percent in the final two years.

Bush's ambitious space program is likely to enjoy key support on Capitol Hill including that of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, whose suburban Houston district is home to NASA's Johnson Space Center. Last month he called for a return to the Moon, possibly as a precursor for expeditions to Mars.

In an Oct. 29 letter he wrote to Bush asking him to request an increase in NASA's budget when he formally submits the White House's fiscal 2005 budget request early next month. Prior NASA funding requests have "not demonstrated an appropriate level of commitment to an agency that is so important to the future of our nation," the letter states. The bipartisan letter signed by 101 lawmakers was co-authored by Reps. Bud Cramer, D-Ala., and Dave Weldon, R-Fla., who sit on the Appropriations VA-HUD Subcommittee, which funds NASA. Cramer's North Alabama district is home to NASA's Marshall Center, and Weldon's is home to Cape Canaveral.

But the proposed space program has already run into skepticism from Democrats. Asked about Bush's space agenda, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said she was reserving judgment. "What is this about? What are the costs? What about safety?" Pelosi asked. House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Md., who noted his district includes the Goddard Space Flight Center, said the space proposal is "very exciting" for his constituents, but added Congress has to weigh the costs with other interests. "What you are going to hear in this debate, I think, is about priorities," he said. However, House Budget ranking member John Spratt, D-S.C., today called the space proposal "bizarre" and said it was more about election-year politics.

The project also drew questions from budget hawks who cited runaway deficits. Citizens Against Government Waste President Tom Schatz said Tuesday that the program "is not feasible at this time" given deficit projections that could exceed $500 billion for fiscal 2004. Schatz criticized lawmakers for earmarking NASA funds for home-state projects.

"Even if this space dream made sense, members of Congress, who have stuffed NASA's fiscal 2004 budget with more than $300 million in pork, should first be required to eliminate their parochial projects. Those projects included $3 million for an astronomy center in Hawaii, as well as $3 million for ocean and weather research at the University of Alaska," Schatz said.