Only one month after Michael Griffin traveled to Capitol Hill for his Senate confirmation hearing, he was back as the new Administrator of NASA to testify on the agency's FY 2006 budget request. Griffin was the sole witness at this first hearing of the newly-established Senate Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee, chaired by Richard Shelby (R-AL).
This was a good hearing for Administrator Griffin, and more broadly, the larger space community. Praised for his academic credentials as well as his many years at NASA, Griffin's low-key, but straight-forward approach quickly established a good relationship with Shelby, Ranking Member Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Thad Cochran (R-MS) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX). While the senators sat on one side of podium and Griffin on the other, it was very evident that they shared common ground: deep interest in seeing NASA complete its projects and then realign its vision toward the Moon and Mars, as well as realization that the agency is working with a very tight budget.
This was also the first hearing to observe the dynamics of the interaction between Chairman Shelby and Ranking Member Mikulski. Ideologically, the senators' composite liberal and conservative scores (as determined by a policy publication) are almost mirror opposites. Despite these differences, Mikulski took several minutes describing what she called their long and congenial history, explaining that they both started their congressional careers on the same House committee. She spoke of their mutual work as Senate appropriators and described Shelby as "a good friend," saying she looked forward to building upon their relationship. Reflecting on Shelby's opening statement, Mikulski said "those are also my priorities," and spoke of their "parallel wills."
Shelby started the hearing by declaring "I am excited by the opportunities that lay ahead with the [Moon/Mars] exploration vision at NASA. However, there are fiscal realities that, like it or not, may affect the vision. That is what we deal with on our Committee, and I believe it is one of the difficulties you will face as the NASA administrator – having to balance NASA's limited resources with its programs and requirements."
These senators are going to play a very large role in determining NASA's FY 2006 budget. So what was on their minds? One issue that was cited repeatedly was the four-year gap between the decommissioning of the space shuttle in 2010 and the first scheduled manned flight of a new Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) in 2014. No one is happy about this "unacceptable" gap, and the senators listened with keen interest to Griffin's intention to release a plan in mid-July that would speed up CEV deployment. Despite a strong suggestion from Hutchison that NASA might be forced to keep flying the shuttle after 2010, Griffin reiterated that he did not want to delay the decommissioning date, saying "we must get it [the shuttle] behind us." "I want to retire it" before there is a chance for another shuttle accident, he said.
The senators also had great concern about completing the space station, with no one suggesting that there was any alternative to doing so. But there was recognition and perhaps some worry that the shuttle fleet and crews would have a very tight and aggressive schedule to finish the station (involving perhaps five or six flights during some years). Griffin told the senators that he was prepared to adopt a strategy that would postpone, but not cancel, some on-board scientific research if that was what was required to get the station built.
Several senators, notably Mikulski, asked pointed questions about servicing the Hubble Space Telescope. "I have committed to reexamine" the feasibility of a Hubble mission, Griffin told the subcommittee. Griffin does not support a robotic mission, saying "I think we need to get off that page." His approach seems to be based on his contention that with the return-to-flight shuttle work that "we have a new vehicle." Griffin intends to assess the first two shuttle flights and to then make a decision. Also of issue were suggested cuts in Earth Science research. Griffin told the senators that the concerns of the science community had been heard, and NASA was reexamining its portfolio. Regarding science spending generally, Griffin declared that NASA "would not cut science to fund manned space flight," and that needed money would have to come from within the manned space flight program.
Also discussed at this hearing was NASA's future workforce. Shelby raised this early in the hearing when he told Griffin, "do not forget that the missions of tomorrow will not be possible if there are no scientists and engineers being developed today. This is a serious issue that must be addressed in order to ensure that future exploration in space can occur."
This first hearing was quite upbeat with positive interactions on both sides of the witness table. The difficulty lies ahead: as Griffin told the senators, "NASA cannot afford everything that is on its plate today." Deciding what to take off that plate in the coming months is going to be a challenge of the first order for NASA Administrator Griffin and the appropriators and authorizers on Capitol Hill.