One of many uncertainties surrounding next February’s release of the FY 2011 budget request is how much money the Obama Administration will seek for NASA’s human space flight program. Continuing questions about the future direction and budget implications of NASA’s exploration program and concerns about the impact it might have on the agency’s science programs make the FY 2011 exploration line item of particular interest.
Issues surrounding the human space flight program were highlighted this fall with the release of the report, “Seeking a Human Space Flight Program Worthy of a Great Nation.”The committee writing this report, chaired by Norman Augustine, concluded that “human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit is not viable under the FY 2010 budget guideline,” calculating that an additional $689 million over current outyear budget projections would be required in the FY 2014 budget to conduct meaningful human exploration.
The House Science and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics has been conducting a series of hearings on NASA’s programs to review the findings and implications of the Augustine report, and, it appears, inform the formulation of the FY 2011 budget request. Its Chairwoman, Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) is a strong proponent of NASA’s human space flight program, and has been critical of the Augustine report. She described herself as “extremely frustrated” and “angry” about the outcome of the committee’s review, saying “In fact, I’d argue that we have lost ground,” referring to “what it will take to ensure a robust and meaningful human space flight program.” Giffords later remarked “Now that both internal and external independent reviews have confirmed that the Constellation program is being well executed, we know what needs to be done. Let’s get on with it and cease contemplating our collective navels.”
On November 19, Giffords’ subcommittee held a hearing on “The Growth of Global Space Capabilities: What’s Happening and Why It Matters.” In her opening statement, the chairwoman said “at a time when some in the United States seem to be questioning whether we should sustain a strong commitment to investing in our space program, the rest of the world has not hesitated to embrace the promise that the exploration and utilization of outer space can offer to them.” Looking ahead to the FY 2011 budget release, she added, “The NASA Authorization Act of 2008 established a congressional consensus in support of a strong human and robotic exploration initiative as part of a robust and balanced space program – and in support of devoting the resources needed to pay for it. I know that the president will be grappling with many hard decisions in the days ahead as he attempts to balance competing priorities. But what to do about the nation’s space program doesn’t have to be one of them.”
The 2008 NASA authorization act, P.L. 110-422, signed by President Bush, was described by House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) as follows: "H.R. 6063 is a fiscally responsible measure that sends a strong message to the next Administration that Congress believes that investing in a balanced NASA program of science, aeronautics, and human spaceflight and exploration is important and worthy of the nation's support." This legislation authorized NASA and its programs for the single year FY 2009, and was passed in the Senate by Unanimous Consent and in the House on a voice vote.
Giffords and the subcommittee’s Ranking Republican Member Pete Olson (R-TX) share a similar perspective on NASA’s exploration program, with Olson telling the witnesses: “With each nation that commits to the goal of sending humans into orbit, and with each promise of missions to the moon, both manned or unmanned, we should recommit ourselves to an unequivocal path of human space flight that serves as an example of leadership, and potential partnership for other nations.”
The five witnesses all spoke of the importance of a continued strong U.S. program, with Marty Hauser of the Space Foundation telling the subcommittee, “It comes down to one simple question: Does the United States wants to continue to be the leader in space?” “It is not a birthright,” he said, calling for the U.S. to “bite the financial bullet.” J.P. Stevens of the Aerospace Industries Association warned America was falling behind other nations in its capabilities in satellites, human space flight, and launch systems, saying “our leadership is no longer guaranteed.” Scott Pace of the Space Policy Institute of George Washington University had similar concerns, saying that the U.S. was risking becoming an emeritus status in space exploration. Kai-Uwe Schrogl of the European Space Policy Institute was worried about the challenges posed by China and India. Ray Williamson of the Secure World Foundation spoke of both the opportunities and challenges of other nations’ activities in space, and called for revisions to ITAR regulations.
Giffords spoke of a changing space environment with many more nations now planning an active role. She contends that U.S. leadership is in question and warned of a lack of U.S. commitment. In response to her question about what the lack of a clear American vision on space had on other nations, Pace responded that it made it difficult for other countries to continue to be partners, and said the U.S. risked “making ourselves irrelevant.” Offering a different perspective, Schrogl stated that the United States holds a leadership position because it spends so much more its space program. A subcommittee document confirms Schrogl’s point: in 2008 the U.S. government’s space budget was $66.6 billion while that for all other nations combined was $16.4 billion.
As is true at most NASA hearings, the central topic was the adequacy of the agency’s funding. Hauser told Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D-FL) that “finances are one of the biggest impediments,” also telling the subcommittee that ITAR regulations sometimes made it difficult to conduct business with other nations. Stevens agreed, with Pace calling for increased “policy stability.”
Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) offered a somewhat different perspective. While expressing support for NASA’s objectives, he was critical of its management. Rohrabacher pointed out that NASA receives more money than any other foreign space agency. He criticized the approximately one-half billion dollars spent on the Ares I-X rocket, later asking “are we getting our money’s worth?” Rohrabacher also expressed concerns about relaxing ITAR regulations for China.
After another round of questions, the hearing was adjourned. In addition to this hearing, the subcommittee has held hearings on NASA’s technology programs and human space flight safety. Later this week the subcommittee will examine the aerospace workforce and industrial base.