The Orlando Sentinel reports that the additional shuttle mission approved by Congress in the recent NASA authorization bill could be in jeopardy should NASA’s budget be cut. The concern, voiced in the article primarily by Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), is that fiscal conservatives, emboldened by victories in next Tuesday’s election that could shift control of the House and possibly the Senate to the Republicans, would seek significant budget cuts in even the FY2011 appropriations bills yet to be passed by Congress. Nelson in particular cited the desire of two fellow senators, Jim DeMint (R-SC) and Tom Coburn (R-OK) to reduce spending to FY2008 levels. “That, of course, would be devastating to NASA,” Nelson said.
If such cuts were made in FY2011 spending, one potential item that would be cut would be the additional shuttle mission, STS-135, with an estimated price tag of $500 million. Technology development and spaceport infrastructure work at KSC could also be cut, but local officials quoted in the article said they’d prefer to see the extra shuttle mission cut before losing those funds.
It’s not clear, though, just how much STS-135 is currently in danger of being cut. While Republicans are poised to win back control of the House, and at least significantly reduce the Democratic majority in the Senate, Democrats will still be in control when Congress returns in mid-November for a lame duck sessions, primarily to handle the outstanding appropriations bills. Republicans could try to slow down or block those bills, though. Recall that in 2006, after Democrats won control of the House and Senate, they decided to sweep aside the appropriations bills that had not passed for FY2007 and instead passed a year-long continuing resolution that funded agencies like NASA at FY2006 levels.
Nelson’s statement, then, could be seen as a preemptive strike of sorts, a variant of the “Washington Monument Syndrome”: since the additional shuttle mission has bipartisan support, and is eagerly anticipated on the Space Coast, where it will keep thousands of shuttle works employed for a few additional months, saying it’s in danger of being cut may be a strategy for keeping it funded.