Members of the House Science Committee had many more questions than NASA officials had answers for during the first of a series of hearings that will lead to a reauthorization bill for the space agency. While support remains high for the agency, there were questions from both sides of the aisle about the direction the Bush Administration has set for NASA.
"I want to do an authorization bill because I think it's critical that Congress have a full and open debate on the president's vision for space exploration and the future of NASA before NASA barrels ahead with the program," said House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY). While Congress provided planning money this year, it "has never endorsed – in fact, has never discussed the vision," he added. Ranking Minority Member Bart Gordon (D-TN) agreed, saying "there has been little opportunity for congressional scrutiny, and there has been no opportunity to develop a consensus on what Congress or the American people thinks of this initiative."
The questions raised at this mid-February hearing were similar to those addressed to OSTP Director John Marburger at a subsequent House Science, State, Justice and Commerce Appropriations Subcommittee hearing (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2005/036.html .) Both authorizers and appropriators contend Congress has not given NASA's plan to return to the moon, and eventually send humans to Mars, the close attention that it deserves.
The Science Committee hearing previewed many of the questions that will be asked about NASA's vision in the coming months. Boehlert raised many of them in his opening comments, asking about proposed space station research, shuttle flights, the shuttle's replacement, nuclear propulsion, and "what we might do when we get to the moon." He hastened to add that he was not criticizing NASA for not being forthcoming, but rather, "they can't provide answers that they don't have yet." Gordon raised similar questions, "notably, what priority should the president's exploration initiative have relative to NASA's other important missions?" Other committee members raised similar concerns. There was disagreement with NASA's decision not to send a crew to service the Hubble Space Telescope. Other questions concerned how the agency intends to set its future priorities, the emphasis on space science, and NASA's plans to reduce its workforce.
The Science Committee's Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics (http://www.house.gov/science/committeeinfo/members/space/index.htm) will be examining these and many other questions in coming weeks. The subcommittee's chairman, Ken Calvert (R-CA) said "I strongly support" the president's "exciting and bold exploration vision." Calvert announced plans to hold hearings on NASA's roles, missions and infrastructure. He stated, "I want to ensure that we get to work early to pass an authorization bill for NASA. We haven't passed one since 2000; I think it's important we not turn our responsibilities over to the appropriators as we enter a new era of space exploration." The subcommittee's Ranking Minority Member, Mark Udall (D-CO) spoke about whether scientific and aeronautical research would have to be curtailed in favor of exploration. He said it is "a false choice, we should be able to do both." The House Science Committee, its Senate counterpart, and the appropriators will spend the next few months seeing if it will be possible to do both during a year when money is very tight.