The Senate VA/HUD Appropriations Subcommittee met on March 11 to hear NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe discuss his agency's budget request for fiscal year 2005, which incorporates the President's new Space Exploration Initiative. The President has requested $16.2 billion - a 5.6 percent increase - for NASA. "Unfortunately," subcommittee chairman Christopher "Kit" Bond (R-MO) commented, "this impressive increase raises more questions at this time than excitement."
Bond's main concern was the four-year gap between the planned phase-out of the shuttle in 2010 and the expected launch date of the yet-to-be-developed Crew Exploration Vehicle. "I am not convinced that a four-year gap in U.S. manned space flight is sound policy," he argued, "and, more importantly, I am convinced that this time schedule is too optimistic." Ranking Minority Member Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) focused on the proposed cancellation of the final servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, which she called "NASA's greatest success since the Apollo program." Both senators questioned whether the costs and schedule for the exploration initiative were too ambitious, and warned that funding increases for NASA must compete against other demands within the VA/HUD subcommittee's jurisdiction.
Senators Richard Shelby (R-AL) and full committee chairman Ted Stevens (R-AK) joined Bond and Mikulski in questioning the impact of the new exploration initiative on other NASA programs. "I'm concerned," Shelby said, "as a lot of other people are, with the significant reduction in funding" for physical sciences research on the space station and shuttle, particularly in the area of materials science. He noted that crew health depends on more than just biological research; both the Challenger and Columbia tragedies "were due to materials failures," he pointed out. "It's about priorities," was the mantra O'Keefe repeated several times throughout the hearing. He explained that the exploration initiative would focus all of NASA's programs and capabilities on a common effort, giving greater clarity and focus to the agency's mission. He did not expect "a big diminution in those central objectives the agency has been chartered to do." O'Keefe also said that some materials science research would continue aboard the space station.
In answer to Bond's concern about the delay between shuttle retirement and availability of a crew exploration vehicle, O'Keefe said that the milestone for retiring the shuttle was the completion of the space station, not an arbitrary date. He said the time for station completion would depend on the final space station configuration to be agreed upon by NASA and its international partners, and he suggested that an operational crew exploration vehicle might be ready earlier than currently planned.
Mikulski noted that a review of the decision to cancel the final servicing mission to the Hubble Telescope, by Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) Chairman Admiral Harold Gehman, has led to a call for further study of the issue. Gehman's review concluded that "only a deep and rich study of the entire gain/risk equation can answer the question of whether an extension of the life of the wonderful Hubble telescope is worth the risks involved." Mikulski and Bond have asked the National Academy of Sciences and the General Accounting Office to study the risks and costs of a servicing mission. Although insisting upon following the CAIB's safety recommendations, O'Keefe said he welcomed the additional reviews. He urged that alternative ways to service the telescope or extend its useful life, such as reducing the rate of battery use, also be examined.
The budget numbers in the Senate budget resolution "will mean unacceptable shortfalls for a number of key VA/HUD programs," including veterans' medical care and housing assistance, Bond said; "these shortfalls have to be addressed before we provide increases to new programs in other accounts." Mikulski added, "the challenge I see is not competing visions, but competing demands for revenue."