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U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson Says Congress 'Starved' NASA of Funding

Bill Nelson 1986 Photo Credit:NASA
Bill Nelson 1986 Photo Credit:NASA

July 07, 2011 | WMFE - U.S. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) has long been a strong advocate for the nation's space program and even flew into space himself aboard Space Shuttle Columbia in 1986.

In a recent interview with WMFE, Nelson said Congress has known the shuttle program was shutting down since soon after the loss of Shuttle Columbia in 2003, and he lamented the fact that NASA’s next human spaceflight program is not ready in time for the final shuttle flight.

 “The problem was that NASA was starved of funds over the course of the last seven or eight years, so that the new rocket was not built in time.” Nelson said.

Nelson suggested that Congress is starting to catch up.  He says the NASA Authorization bill passed last year sets the space agency on a path to do two primary things. The first is to develop rockets to take cargo and crew to the International Space Station.  That mission is on track, Nelson says, with NASA planning to launch an experimental unmanned rocket in the fall and contracting with commercial space companies for research on human-rated rockets. 

The other mission is more ambitious.

“The President has set the goal - to go out and explore the heavens,” Nelson said. “The goal is Mars, and the interim goal is to land on, and return from, an asteroid by 2025.”

The Senator says Congress has already approved funding for those efforts for this year, and he vowed to fight for continued funding for NASA’s future projects.

None of these new projects is running now, however. Not many of the thousands of space shuttle workers losing their jobs will find immediate employment in NASA’s new ventures. Nelson said that is one of his biggest regrets.

“That is the human tragedy,” he said.

When President Obama visited Kennedy Space Center last year, he promised $40 million to help with economic development efforts on the Space Coast, including retraining for laid-off shuttle workers.  Nelson says $15 million of that has already been allocated, but the balance has not. 

“The [Obama] Administration has got to step forward and push for that funding,” Nelson said. “They can do it through the Department of Commerce with existing economic development funds. They don’t need to have an appropriation for that.”

Nelson said he will continue to lobby the Administration to deliver those funds. 

Senator Nelson is one of only three American lawmakers to ride on a Space Shuttle. Republican Senator Jake Garn of Utah was the first in 1985, when he flew aboard Shuttle Discovery.  Nelson, then a Democratic member of the House, followed a year later on Columbia.  Democratic Senator John Glenn, the first American to orbit the earth as a Mercury astronaut, returned to space aboard Shuttle Discovery in 1998.

Nelson says he plans to be at Cape Canaveral to watch Shuttle Atlantis lift off on the final shuttle flight, scheduled for 11:26 on Friday morning.


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