NASA chief Charles Bolden Jr. told a skeptical House panel Wednesday that President Obama's budget provides enough funds to maintain the agency's mission and stay on the cutting edge of innovation and space exploration.
But several members on the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology told Mr. Bolden, a former space shuttle commander, that Mr. Obama's blueprint and budget for the nations space program did not meet the challenges NASA faces.
"I am concerned that the future of our space program is in serious jeopardy," said Chairman Ralph M. Hall, Texas Republican. "As everyone knows, we are in a challenging budget environment. In times like these, it is more important than ever for NASA to have credible, realistic plans that can be understood and defended."
The president's fiscal 2012 budget request of $18.7 billion represents no increase over 2011 spending, and is $300 million below what Mr. Obama requested in his previous budget. But Mr. Bolden contended the agency could still pursue its mission and expressed confidence that private businesses could fill the void with the pending retirement of the space shuttle program.
"We have got to develop commercial capability to get into low-Earth orbit," he said. "The nation needs to become unafraid of exploration. We need to become unafraid of risks."
But even Democrats on the panel said Mr. Obama's new budget request leans more toward the commercial activities, with less money going to NASA's own next-generation spacecraft. They complained the budget upset a carefully crafted compromise worked out last year in the debate over the space agency's authorization bill.
"While last year's [bill] was by no means a perfect bill, it did clearly articulate Congress' intention: That NASA pursue a means of transportation that builds on all the work thats been done over the past five years," said Texas Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, the ranking Democrat on the science committee.
"I do not see it reflected in the proposed NASA budget request," she said.
According to Mr. Bolden, the majority of Mr. Obama's budget will go to the International Space Station. About 83 percent of that is paid to "commercial entities on a contract basis."
On NASAs agenda for the coming years is the Mars Science Laboratory, set to launch later in 2011 and arrive by August 2012; progress on developing a new "evolvable heavy-lift rocket" in 2012; and continued work on building a Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle focusing on human safety features.
The safety of crew members is "the number-one priority," Mr. Bolden said.
However, NASAs efforts in education outreach face a 5.1 percent decrease compared with the space programs education budget for 2011.
"These are tough fiscal times, calling for tough choices," he told lawmakers.
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