Who’s in charge of the US space program? There’s the administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, for one, and of course the President–and also Tom DeLay.

The scandal-scented Republican House majority leader has invaded NASA, grabbing its biggest outpost and taking a rather personal interest in the agency’s budget. He has established himself as the go-to guy on Capitol Hill regarding NASA. And given the way Washington works, this means he can influence how the agency carves up its $16 billion pie and how it resolves critical policy debates–matters of keen interest to aerospace and military contractors, who often look to make contributions to friendly or feared legislators. Fans of NASA might cheer DeLay’s involvement. “It’s always to the benefit of the agency to have someone in the leadership interested in the agency’s budget,” says Wesley Huntress Jr., an associate administrator of NASA in the 1990s. “And Tom DeLay is very interested in NASA.” But anyone concerned about good government and effective and appropriate budgeting decisions ought to fret about The Hammer’s sway over NASA. “With NASA changing its spending priorities to support President Bush’s vision for space exploration that will return humans to the moon and take them to Mars, there will be plenty of money going to start-up companies with no record of producing hardware, and there will be no way to measure results,” says John Pike, director of globalsecurity.org. “DeLay, if he wants, will be in charge of a free-for-all, with money flowing everywhere–mainly flying in the direction he directs.” NASA, then, is another potential source of money and power for DeLay–if he survives his ethics troubles.

For years, DeLay has expressed an interest in the space program. But last year he hit the boost phase. First, without making much noise about it, he seized the Johnson Space Center. Located outside Houston, the JSC hosts the mission control center that manages space shuttle missions and space station activity, and it oversees development and production of spacecraft for human space exploration. One of the largest employers in Texas, the center boasts about 15,000 workers. Until last year the JSC was miles outside DeLay’s Congressional district. When he and other Texas Republicans orchestrated a controversial redrawing of district lines in 2003, they wiped out the district next to DeLay’s, a Democratic stronghold that included the JSC. At the same time, an elbow-shaped piece of territory was added to the east side of DeLay’s district. This patch stretched far enough to wrap around the Johnson Space Center.

The JSC brass noticed the change. Last August, in the midst of the election, JSC deputy chief counsel Daniel Remington sent a memo to JSC employees noting that nearby University of Houston had scheduled a reception honoring DeLay. “People from NASA, the aerospace community, and other community businesses have been invited to attend this event,” Remington wrote. “The event is of direct interest to NASA…. It is my determination that it is in the Agency’s interest for NASA attendees and their guests to attend this event.” (A day earlier, the JSC general counsel had warned employees against engaging in political activity while on duty.) One long-term JSC employee told the Houston Press that the memo “just didn’t pass the smell test.”

It wasn’t until DeLay, who won re-election in November with an unimpressive 55 percent, was sworn in as a House member in January that he officially became the legislator representing the JSC. But before that, he was already acting as NASA’s guardian–or avenging–angel. At the start of 2004, Bush proposed spending $16.2 billion on NASA in the 2005 budget, granting NASA the only proposed spending hike for a domestic agency not involved in defense or homeland security. The funding increase was linked to Bush’s new moon-Mars initiative. But not every Republican was enthralled with Bush’s proposal. The GOP-run House appropriations subcommittee on veterans and housing–which oversaw NASA’s funding–trimmed NASA’s budget by $1.1 billion, partly to make room for funding for veterans’ healthcare. Bush then threatened to veto the $92 billion appropriations bill that included NASA’s money. More important, DeLay hit the warpath.

“To me, that’s unacceptable,” DeLay said of the decrease in NASA funding. “And it would be very hard to get this bill to the floor if it’s unacceptable to me.” DeLay was right. He kept the subcommittee’s bill bottled up. (During this spending battle, aerospace firms like Northrop Grumman and Boeing funded a reception honoring DeLay at the GOP convention.) The appropriations bill covering NASA eventually was incorporated into an omnibus spending measure. And in December DeLay threatened to block that legislation unless NASA received the full funding proposed by Bush. According to Democrats on the appropriations committee, to accommodate DeLay the committee had to apply a nearly 1 percent cut to other programs. This meant slashing $456 million in education, $225 million in veterans’ healthcare and $61 million in scientific research. DeLay didn’t mind. He held firm and got his way. This approach to budgeting was unprecedented. “Usually the House and the Senate come up with their own numbers for NASA and then compromise at a level in between,” says Louis Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society. “In this case, DeLay intervened, and the final number came out higher than the House or Senate level.” DeLay later boasted during a visit to the JSC, “I wouldn’t schedule the [spending] bill [for a vote] until NASA was taken care of.”

DeLay had single-handedly reworked the federal budget in NASA’s favor. Then in February, the Republican leadership reorganized the House Appropriations Committee. Authority for NASA was yanked from the subcommittee on veterans and housing and handed to the subcommittee in charge of the State and Justice departments. This was a promotion for NASA. It was also seen on Capitol Hill as an act of revenge. The reorganization plan, said David Obey, the senior Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, was “simply payback. House majority leader Tom DeLay is retaliating for cuts the Republican-controlled VA-HUD appropriations subcommittee made to the NASA budget request.”

DeLay will again loom large as Congress considers the latest budget request for NASA. Bush called for a 2.4 percent increase, even as he proposed cutbacks in other programs, including those serving low-income Americans. At a February hearing, Representative Sherwood Boehlert, GOP chairman of the House Science Committee, said that “in a budget as excruciatingly tight as this one, NASA probably should not get as much as the President has proposed.” Republican and Democratic House aides note a concern among legislators that while NASA’s budget is going up, the Administration’s spending on other science programs is heading south. And Boehlert suggested that throwing so much money at NASA is wasteful: “Even if NASA received every cent it has requested, it would still be trying to do too much at once…. There are a lot of fundamental questions that NASA still isn’t ready to answer” about its programs. But a House GOP staffer says that lack of answers won’t slow DeLay. House aides who would like to see a policy-driven debate on NASA’s budget expect that DeLay will again try to roll them.

Besides NASA’s overall funding, there are numerous and difficult matters facing the agency. How should NASA meet Bush’s demand that it return astronauts to the moon by 2020? How fast should NASA retire the problematic space shuttle and the aging space station? How swiftly should it proceed with the next-generation rocket ship for human space exploration? Should it move ahead with plans to cancel research-oriented programs like the Voyager mission and the Hubble telescope–hailed by scientists and researchers–no matter how modest the savings, to make room for Bush’s moon-Mars initiative? Should it proceed with proposed cutbacks to its less sexy aeronautics program, which conducts research and development on aviation safety and design?

Many of these issues will affect the Johnson Space Center. The JSC will lose jobs as the space shuttle and space stations are decommissioned; it should gain jobs as NASA gears up for the next stage of human space flight. DeLay will undoubtedly care greatly about how this ebb and flow occurs; he will be highly motivated to weigh in on policy deliberations to favor the JSC. “It’s in his interest to be intimately involved,” says a Republican House aide. “He didn’t take JSC into his district to lose jobs.” Aerospace, aviation, military and computer contractors also have a stake in how NASA settles these questions–which gives them reason to curry favor with a House majority leader with influence over NASA spending. “This is not just about DeLay bringing money to his district,” Pike says. “It’s national. If you want a contract with NASA, who are you going to go to? And we all know how you get DeLay’s attention. DeLay must realize this. Over time, the amount of discretionary budget authority available to him could add up to billions.”

Billions? DeLay is already in Dutch for taking junkets that cost tens of thousands of dollars. How far might he push the envelope of ethics when real money is at stake? If he retains his power and sticks to his pay-to-play ways, perhaps, as king of NASA, the sky will be DeLay’s only limit.