Following the discovery of possible evidence of past life on Mars last August, President Clinton announced that the Administration would be hosting a "space summit" to stabilize NASA funding and to discuss the ramifications of new findings. The subsequent discovery of what may be ice on the moon added to the renewed public and political interest in space science.
The summit was originally suggested by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) as a response to dwindling funding for the space program. Despite a slight upward trend in science and technology-oriented funding in FY 1997, NASA's overall budget decreased by 1.4 percent to $13.7 billion, $1 billion less than the Administration's request (see Science & Technology in Congress 10/96). Administration budget projections call for NASA funding to continue to drop, falling to $11.6 billion by FY 2000. The summit is intended to bring top-level administrative personnel and congressional leaders together to stabilize the agency's outyear funding in the face of the impending squeeze.
Originally planned for November, the summit is now tentatively scheduled to take place either late in February or early in March; it is still not on the President's schedule and no official agenda has been released. With the Administration's budget proposal for FY 1998 slated for release on February 6, some expect the summit to deal mostly with the allocation of funds in the authorization and appropriation process.
In anticipation of the summit, Vice President Al Gore held a meeting in February with scientific, philosophic, and religious thinkers to discuss the "philosophical underpinnings" of space exploration and space science. While no specific program areas or budget issues were discussed, Dan Goldin, NASA administrator, argued for increasing funding for astrobiology, in order to conduct more research on the origins of life. In general, the meeting avoided tackling specific budget and policy concerns.
While it is hoped that the summit will deal with the ramifications of the recent scientific discoveries, it is clear that the main issue will be how to fund NASA as discretionary money becomes scarcer over the next few years.