A recurring theme in congressional hearings on NASA is the disparity between what the agency and its supporters would like it to do and the money available to do it. That theme was woven through the April 29 hearing of the House Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies on NASA’s FY 2010 budget request.
This hearing, like others this year, was held before the Obama Administration sent its full FY 2010 request to Capitol Hill. That situation changes tomorrow when the Administration submits its full request. Appropriators may start releasing the first versions of their FY 2010 funding bills later this month.
Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Alan Mollohan’s (D-WV) opening statement captured the agency’s ongoing predicament in one sentence: “But the larger, looming question remains: can NASA do all that it is asked to do within its budget allocation?”Echoing previous years’ hearings, it quickly became apparent that it cannot. Questions surrounding the projected five-year gap between the scheduled 2010 retirement of the space shuttle and its 2015 replacement were again asked, with the differences this year being that a significant reduction of this gap was unlikely regardless of funding, and with Acting NASA Administrator Christopher Scolese saying that the agency would try as hard as it can to meet the 2015 date. Also apparent was Mollohan’s concern about the projected flat-lining of NASA’s budget in fiscal years 2011 and beyond and the impact on programs such as science and aeronautics. Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) spoke of an estimated $6 billion in planetary sciences projects in the next ten years for which money is not available, and the importance of NASA flying the top priority decadal survey missions. Culberson also urged that NASA provide accurate cost estimates, a point later made by Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) who spoke of NASA’s recurring problem with schedule growth.
Other members asked about the use of the future use of the Commercial Orbital Transportation System for the carrying of cargo and crew to the space station, and sustaining the interest of Americans in NASA during the five-year period when no U.S. manned space mission would be launched. Scolese was asked what NASA is doing to maintain student interest in the sciences and mathematics.
Later in the hearing, Mollohan and Scolese had an interesting exchange about the U.S. return to the Moon by 2020. Scolese asked if Mollohan meant a colony on the Moon by that date, or something more like the Apollo missions. Scolese said an outpost was originally envisioned, and that it was being “revisited,” suggesting it would “probably be less of an outpost.” He also noted that the Moon was originally envisioned as a stepping stone to Mars and other places. Scolese recommended that NASA construct a flexible system that would allow it to consider multiple options. During a later exchange, Edward Weiler, Associate Administrator for the Science Mission Directorate, told Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) that the Moon program could be shifted to accommodate other, higher-priority programs that were identified in the decadal survey. There was also discussion about whether China would get to the Moon before a US return flight, with Weiler replying that the Chinese could do so.
Also of interest during the hearing was a question to Weiler about when a new NASA administrator would be selected. Weiler replied that he had no idea when that would occur or who would be named.