"It's simply impossible to get a clear fix at this point on how much the human space flight program will require in the upcoming fiscal year." - House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert
As the Columbia Accident Investigation Board continues to seek answers to the shuttle tragedy, Congress must proceed with consideration of NASA's FY 2004 budget. On February 27, the House Science Committee heard from NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe on the agency's budget request and how the grounding of the shuttle fleet is impacting the international space station. Committee members raised questions about the Earth Science budget, cuts to aeronautics R&D and tech transfer programs, proposals for a number of new initiatives, and progress on a vehicle to complement or replace the shuttle.
There is no indication yet of when the investigation board will complete its work and the shuttle fleet will return to operation. Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), who had previously voiced concern over the independence of the accident investigation board, expressed himself "more convinced than ever that the Columbia Accident Investigation Board has the independence and resources it needs." However, others were not yet satisfied. Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN) urged that the board be appointed as a presidential commission, and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee called for greater diversity on the board. Members repeatedly questioned whether, during the Columbia flight, engineers' concerns were addressed at the appropriate level within NASA. O'Keefe thought so, but added, "Was that a judgment call that was in error? We'll find out."
O'Keefe reported that, the previous day, the space station international partners had reached agreement on a plan to use the Russian Soyuz to bring back the three-person station crew in April or May, and replace them with a two-person crew. Additional flights of the unmanned Progress resupply vehicle would be planned over the next two years. Previous hearing testimony, Boehlert noted, indicated that the station needed more than two crew members just to maintain operations. NASA and its international partners have concluded that a two-member crew can continue operations and conduct some science, O'Keefe replied, and can use the Soyuz as an escape vehicle if needed. The objective, he said, is to keep the station operating and continue conducting research, so that assembly can be continued at the earliest opportunity.
O'Keee called the $15.5 billion FY 2004 request a "responsible" budget that incorporates full-cost accounting, pursues transformational technologies that will "open new pathways," and includes exciting initiatives aligned with NASA's new Strategic Plan (available in pdf format at www.nasa.gov/about/budget/content/strategi.pdf). He described nine specific new opportunities in the request: initiatives in human research; optical communications; climate change research; aviation security; national airspace system transformation augmentation; quiet aircraft technology acceleration; education; several "Einstein" observatories; and Project Prometheus, a mission to Jupiter's icy moons that will use nuclear power and propulsion technologies. He said the request also supports space station assembly to the U.S. core configuration, upon the shuttle's return to flight, so the station could be built out to a configuration dictated by the research objectives. He added that NASA plans to proceed with establishment of a non-governmental organization to prioritize those research objectives.
Remarking that the change to full-cost accounting made comparison with the FY 2003 appropriation difficult, Boehlert asked NASA for a conversion of the final FY 2003 numbers to enable "meaningful comparisons."
Questioning NASA's plans for several "expensive new missions," Ranking Minority Member Ralph Hall (D-TX) commented, "A year after OMB cancelled the $1 billion Europa Orbiter mission because it was too expensive, NASA is now proposing to undertake a $4 billion mission to Jupiter's icy moons. Two years after OMB deferred work on a $1.4 billion U.S. Crew Return Vehicle for the International Space Station, NASA is now proposing to spend what it estimates could be ten times as much on an Orbital Space Plane."
Hall urged greater attention to crew survivability systems for the shuttle. Many members inquired about the role and cost of the planned Orbital Space Plane, and whether development could be accelerated with additional funding. The plane is intended to complement the shuttle by providing crew transfer capability, O'Keefe explained, and the shuttle would continue to be used for its heavy-lift capacity while technologies were developed for a next-generation launch vehicle. He hoped that a single design would be selected within the next 12-18 months, but could not speculate on the total cost at this time. The plan currently calls for the Orbital Space Plane to be operational by 2010, but NASA is exploring whether its development could be accelerated.
Several members questioned the value of human space flight and of recent research performed aboard the shuttle and space station. O'Keefe, as in past hearings, used the Hubble Space Telescope as the "most instructive example" of how human involvement can complement unmanned missions. He also referred to the role of space-based research in development of a heart pump, and said that human research on the station could have "rather dramatic" applications for those on Earth.
Indicating his interest in doubling the science budgets of NASA and DOE, Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI) thanked O'Keefe for seeking increased funding for NASA science programs. Boehlert expressed concerns about whether "Earth Science is getting its due," and called it a critical NASA mission "of enormous scientific utility." Committee members were also concerned about the aging of the NASA S&T workforce and the agency's difficulties in hiring. Boehlert testified to the Senate Governmental Affairs Committee on March 6 about this issue, and has reintroduced legislation (H.R. 1085) that would give NASA enhanced flexibility and authority in recruiting and retaining scientists and engineers.
While the tone of the hearing was generally positive toward NASA programs, the House Science Committee, as an authorizing committee, does not have control of NASA's purse strings. Future hearings on the agency's FY 2004 budget will be held by VA/HUD appropriators in the House and Senate, who will draft the funding legislation for NASA and other programs under their jurisdiction.