A House VA/HUD Appropriations Subcommittee hearing on NASA's FY 2004 budget request demonstrated general support and good will for Administrator Sean O'Keefe, the agency, and its $15.5 billion budget request. Chairman James Walsh (R-NY) indicated that the subcommittee would probably only make "minor changes" to the request and was "ready and willing" to work with NASA to ensure the agency had adequate resources.
As in other recent hearings on NASA, subcommittee members inquired about the Columbia accident investigation, the impact of grounding the shuttle fleet on the space station, and the value versus the risks of manned space flight. Discussion also revolved around the development of an Orbital Space Plane to replace the shuttle fleet for the purpose of crew transport, with members asking when it would be available and whether its development could be accelerated.
Rep. Dave Weldon (R-FL) remarked that, in contrast to past years, the space station budget was not the "main topic of discussion," and he commended O'Keefe for getting its budget "under control." O'Keefe reported that, under the agency's move to full-cost budgeting, the space station is now "resourced to the level necessary" to conduct operations, and its budget has been confirmed by three separate cost estimates. The two-person crew that will be launched on Soyuz later this month to replace the current three crew members would be sufficient, he said, to sustain the station "without compromise to [its] integrity." Although it is too early to predict the results of the Columbia investigation, he stated that if the investigation board finds "no showstoppers on the hardware end," his goal would be to have the shuttles return to flight by the end of this year. He estimated that this would result in no more than a nine-month delay in finishing assembly of the station's core configuration, which is currently about two-thirds complete.
O'Keefe has indicated several times in recent hearings that he expects construction to continue on the space station for several years beyond U.S. core complete. He noted that European and Japanese modules, a centrifuge, and then possibly other U.S. modules would be "ready for deployment" after the core configuration was reached, so the station's research capacity could be expanded "as all of us had dreamed." Completion of the space station is not dependent upon the Space Plane, which is currently expected to be operational by approximately 2010, O'Keefe said. He added that NASA is looking at how to expedite its development.
When asked about research results from human space flight, he declined to cite a "litany" of spin-offs but, as in past hearings, cited the role of space research in the development of a new heart pump. When questioned on the balance between manned and unmanned missions, he again used the Hubble Space Telescope as an example in which human involvement saved an unmanned research capability, and said his challenge was to determine when a requirement for human intervention is "imperative." Without the ability to make adjustments or repairs, O'Keefe said, NASA would have to "resign ourselves to multiple missions," so that if one fails, another could be launched.
Asked by Rep. Mike Simpson (R-ID) whether NASA should be seeking major new challenges to "capture the imagination of the public," O'Keefe responded that there are "any number of destinations [but] no consensus" on which to strive for. "The stark reality," he added, is that NASA does not have "the means or the wherewithal" to reach those destinations. His intent, he explained, is to develop enabling technologies so that "we can get to the destination when a consensus comes together." The two budget initiatives that he chose to highlight in his testimony would provide breakthrough enabling capabilities and knowledge: "Project Prometheus" to develop nuclear propulsion and power generation capabilities for spacecraft, and a human research initiative to improve understanding of survival in space. This strategy is described in more detail in a Strategic Plan released by NASA with its FY 2004 budget request. To achieve NASA's vision and mission, the plan states, "we build the tools that enable revolutionary robotic and human missions. Through scientific research and strategic investments in transformational technologies, we open new pathways toward missions that were impossible only a few years ago." The approximately 30-page plan can be accessed in pdf format at www.nasa.gov/pdf/1968main_strategi.pdf.
A much-discussed related issue is whether NASA has the scientists, engineers and technicians to take on new challenges. Part of NASA's charter, O'Keefe explained, is to help develop the nation's S&T workforce. Many members praised NASA's renewed emphasis on education as a way to encourage more American students to enter S&T fields. O'Keefe thanked committee members for their support of a proposal to give NASA increased authority for recruitment, hiring and retention, which has been introduced as legislation by Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) and Sen. George Voinovich (R-OH).
As the hearing drew toward a close, Rep. Joe Knollenberg (R-MI) referred to recent research into dark energy. While commenting that he was fascinated by new revelations regarding the age and expansion of the universe, he asked about near-term applications of this information. O'Keefe compared this new knowledge about the universe to "folks tearing up their flat-Earth society membership cards," and offered to provide information on applications "for the record" after the hearing.
The Senate VA/HUD Appropriations Subcommittee has not yet held its hearing on NASA's budget request.