In the past month, NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe appeared before appropriators in the House and authorizers in the Senate to discuss the space agency's plans for fiscal year 2005. The authorizers greeted NASA's bold new space exploration initiative with enthusiasm, while the appropriators expressed more caution about the proposal and its cost.
President Bush's vision for space exploration is "becoming better defined, [but] many facets are still very unclear," said Chairman James Walsh (R-NY) at an April 21 hearing of the House VA/HUD Appropriations Subcommittee. Ranking Minority Member Alan Mollohan (D-WV) declared that the President's proposal would be "well-served...by being subjected to a rigorous authorization process."
Noting that NASA is asking for $16.2 billion for FY 2005, an almost $900 million increase, Walsh said, "we need to have a clear understanding of what we are being asked to endorse." Mollohan added that, "conceptually, I support the President's vision," but he said the appropriators were confronted "with an awkward process" by being asked to approve an FY 2004 operating plan and prepare an FY 2005 spending bill without sufficient debate or budgetary detail. "I'm concerned it's too much, too fast," he commented. An authorization bill that reflects the space agency's plans through FY 2009 has been submitted to the relevant authorizing committees, O'Keefe reported. He thought that Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) intended to introduce the bill in the House, and that Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee Chairman John McCain (R-AZ) was considering doing the same in the Senate.
Rep. Dave Weldon (R-FL) pointed out that, with the budget resolution passed by the House, NASA might receive only an inflationary increase. O'Keefe remarked that he was "certainly more enamored" with the higher Senate budget numbers and hoped the final conference report would reflect those numbers. He said that very little of the requested increase for FY 2005 was intended for the exploration initiative; the major portion - 85 percent - was for activities related to the shuttle's return to flight, space station assembly, and replenishing the space station's reserves. "I'm not sure how we achieve those objectives" with the funding dictated by the House budget resolution, he admitted. O'Keefe indicated that a continuing resolution until after the election would not have as much impact, as long as NASA finally received its full request. Asked about progress toward returning the shuttle to flight, he said, "I don't see any obstacles that can't be overcome."
Most of the questions and answers followed the pattern of previous hearings; subcommittee members asked about the time delay between retiring the shuttle and launching a Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV), how long research would continue aboard the space station and with how many crew, and how the station would be serviced during the gap between shuttle operations and the CEV. If the shuttle successfully returns to flight by late spring of FY 2005, O'Keefe predicted, there could be up to six crew members on the station by "the year after or beyond." To address the time delay in U.S. access to the station, he hoped that rapid development of the CEV would shorten the gap, and said the U.S. was negotiating with Russia for the use of more Soyuz missions during that time. Based on estimates of the time needed to perform research into long-duration human space flight, O'Keefe said, the U.S. was only planning to conduct research on board the station through 2017, but the station would continue to be used "as long as the international partners may agree it would be necessary." He acknowledged that eventually deorbiting the station was "going to be a challenge," and could not predict how much it would cost. He suggested that ideas for deorbiting the Hubble Space Telescope, which are being solicited along with proposals for a robotic servicing mission, could help inform decisions on the space station. As degradation of the Hubble's gyroscopes and batteries is expected by late 2007-2008, he hoped that a robotic servicing mission might be launched in 2006 or 2007.
At an April 1 hearing, members of the Senate Commerce Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space were much more positive about the President's vision. "It is our destiny to lead the world in new frontiers," said Subcommittee Chairman Sam Brownback (R-KS). He warned that the U.S. "cannot cede" space exploration to other countries such as China and India. Senators on the subcommittee generally agreed in their enthusiasm for the human exploration initiative, but disagreed on NASA's plans to retire the shuttle before the CEV becomes operational. Brownback asked about "a way to move away" from shuttle operations sooner, in order to fund more exploration earlier. However, Sen. John Breaux (D-LA) and others had concerns about "relying on other countries' vehicles" to reach the space station. "Now you realize we're all of one mind up here," Brownback joked.
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) chided O'Keefe for the lack of support for NASA's budget request shown by the White House during Senate Budget Committee negotiations on the budget resolution. "We almost lost your budget" in the process, he said. He also noted that the House version of the resolution "whacked" NASA's request. House and Senate conferees are currently attempting to negotiate a final version of the resolution.
Saying "I'd like to support the President's request," Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) repeated his call for a cost-benefit analysis of the relative merits of manned versus unmanned space exploration. O'Keefe expected to have the analysis completed in 1-2 months. Sen. Trent Lott (R-MS) urged NASA to seek more new funding for exploration, cautioning that as money was redirected away from existing NASA programs, the shifts were "going to be resisted" by many Members of Congress. Regarding progress on the exploration initiative, he remarked, "a lot will depend on how much funding you get from us."
Neither subcommittee chairman discussed a time frame for any legislation. Walsh is not expected to start drafting his VA/HUD appropriations bill until the budget resolution process is completed, and Brownback did not give any indication of whether, or when, he might take up a NASA authorization bill.