Three recent hearings of the House Science Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics are summarized below:
NASA'S INTEGRATED SPACE TRANSPORTATION PLAN: Uncertainty about how long the space shuttle fleet will be grounded, the implications for the space station, and the future of manned space exploration led subcommittee members to review NASA's space transportation plan at a May 8 hearing. A major concern was the fact that completion of the U.S. core configuration of the International Space Station (ISS) will be delayed until the shuttle is once again available. In addition, the U.S. had agreed to provide crew rescue capability for the station after the Russian commitment to three-person crew rescue expires in 2006. However, in recent years NASA canceled several programs to develop a crew return vehicle (CRV) and to seek alternate access to the station through the commercial sector. Subcommittee members were also concerned that NASA's plans for a new space plane for crew rescue and transportation would still rely on use of the shuttle's heavy-lift capacity for ISS support.
NASA's Integrated Space Transportation Plan (ISTP), developed prior to the shuttle accident (see FYI #6), would extend the shuttle's lifetime, pursue development of an Orbital Space Plane (OSP) by the 2010-2012 time frame, and, in the long term, develop next-generation launch technologies. The possibilities for accelerating OSP development will be incorporated into an updated space transportation plan to be issued later this summer, as will the results of a study concluding that an Apollo-derived module might fulfill crew rescue needs even sooner. The Director of Aerospace and Science Policy for the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics, Jerry Grey, recommended that crew rescue and transportation vehicles be developed serially rather than in parallel, enabling NASA to focus on the more-urgently needed CRV and reduce cost and risk by using that experience in subsequent development of a crew transportation vehicle. In-Q-Tel CEO Michael Griffin, however, found NASA's plans "far too conservative." He urged NASA to come up with future space exploration goals and then, instead of the currently-planned OSP, build the spacecraft needed to achieve them.
"I don't want any more people going up in the existing orbiter fleet, period," declared Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX). "I want to phase out the shuttle," Griffin agreed, but "given the investment in the [station]...we must do those things minimally necessary to fly it" until it can be replaced. Rep. Nick Lampson (D-TX) questioned what would happen after the Russian commitment to providing the Soyuz for three-person crew return expires in 2006, especially if the intent is to enhance the station's research capability by increasing the crew to more than three. The ISS International Partners have agreed that Russia will continue to provide a three-person rescue capability even after 2006 "until we [have] our capability," Deputy NASA Administrator Frederick Gregory reported, and the partners will determine, "at some time, how that would be paid for, or bartered for, or traded for." Rather than spending "a great deal of our seed corn money and just getting through the crisis," Subcommittee Chairman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) suggested, the U.S. should spend its money "on developing new technologies and utilizing the Russians...to make sure we get through the crisis. The Russians are our friends. They want to work with us."
U.S.-RUSSIAN COOPERATION IN SPACE: A June 11 hearing explored further the issue of Russian support for the ISS in the wake of the Columbia accident, and how the 2000 Iran Nonproliferation Act constrains U.S.-Russian cooperation on space programs. Until the shuttle fleet's return to operation, the ISS program is dependent on the Russian Soyuz and Progress vehicles for station crew transport and resupply. The Russian government has expedited current-year ISS funding and is considering increased funding for 2003 and 2004, and the other International Partners are contemplating actions that could increase the funds available to the Russian Space Agency. The U.S., however, is prohibited by the nonproliferation act from spending money to purchase Russian spacecraft or services for the ISS unless Russia meets certain nonproliferation requirements (although there is a waiver for immediate loss of life or grievous injury to the station crew). Discussion focused on how the station will be maintained if the Russians and other International Partners cannot meet the potential need for additional funding, and whether NASA should request from Congress a waiver of the nonproliferation act provisions.
Although he did not appear at the hearing, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Steve Pifer submitted testimony stating that "bolstering nonproliferation remains a core issue on the U.S.-Russia security agenda," and that Russia's actions are "not yet sufficient" to satisfy the requirements of the act. Declaring that Russia's motivations for proliferating were largely to achieve foreign political leverage and to maintain an outmoded, oversized military-space industry, Henry Sokolski, Executive Director of the Nonproliferation Policy Education Center, challenged the "conventional wisdom" that cooperation on civilian space projects would deter the Russians from selling sensitive technologies.
Concerned that the Russians would be unable to meet their promises for ISS support, Ranking Member Bart Gordon (D-TN) tried to get a definitive answer to who would pay if additional Soyuz or Progress flights were needed. NASA's Assistant Administrator for External Relations, John Schumacher, indicated that the ISS partners would be monitoring the situation and proposing solutions as necessary. He explained that the U.S. and Russia have an agreement that each country's contributions to the ISS would balance out over the long term, so additional contributions by one country at one time could be balanced by the other country's efforts at another time. When pressed by Gordon, he said that if Russia was unable to ensure the availability of spacecraft as needed, there would have to be "some form of funding either with other partner contributions or us, and we would have to come forward to you for relief on the act." Rep. Lampson noted that he has introduced H.R. 1001 to amend the nonproliferation act by allowing NASA to purchase additional Russian vehicles if necessary to ensure crew safety and maintain the station's operational viability.
"We know now that there is a hurdle we must jump over...to expand the type of cooperation that we have with Russia," Chairman Rohrabacher concluded. "In this case, we are talking about limiting [the U.S.'s ability] to partake of Russian technology for our financial benefit and...get the job done." He hoped for an alternative solution: "If we send the Russians the right kind of signals, [maybe] they will change their behavior...and not be proliferators."
NASA WORKFORCE BILL: On June 26, the subcommittee marked up a bill to give the NASA Administrator authority to offer higher recruitment, relocation and retention bonuses, offer other incentives, and increase the pay for certain positions. According to its sponsor, House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), H.R. 1085 "is a moderate, targeted, careful approach" to help the agency "attract and retain the best and brightest." The bill has been sent to the full Science Committee, and a similar bill was reported out of the Senate Government Affairs Committee. Boehlert expressed hope that the legislation would get "to the President's desk early this fall."