“We are having a great debate here about the future of our human space flight program.” - Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX)
The Obama Administration’s plan to cancel the Constellation Program and rely on commercial services for transportation to the International Space Station is a very contentious issue on Capitol Hill. Two hearings last month helped to set the stage for a speech by President Barack Obama this afternoon at the Kennedy Space Flight Center that is expected to respond to congressional criticism about the Administration’s new space policy.
There were few differences in the views of the senior Democratic and Republican members of the House Committee on Science and Technology’s Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics on the new policy. Subcommittee Chairwoman Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) is unwavering in her opposition to the cancellation of the Constellation Program. Charging in her opening statement that “the President’s budget has been found deficient by this Congress and by the American people,” she said the policy “could leave our country with no human exploration program, no human rated spacecraft, and little ability to inspire the youth of America.” Ranking Member Pete Olson (R-TX) was somewhat milder in his critique of the proposed policy, but was clear in his opposition, saying “I have more questions - and more doubts - about the reasoning behind the Administration’s proposed changes in its human spaceflight program. Until better evidence is brought forward, I will state now that I am not persuaded to abandon Constellation.” Full committee chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) sat in on this hearing, but declined Gifford’s offer to make any opening comments.
The subcommittee heard from two witnesses. Douglas Cooke, Associate Administrator for the Exploration Systems Mission Directorate, stated in the second paragraph of his written testimony that the budget request “outlines an innovative course for human space exploration, but does not change our goal – extending human presence throughout our solar system.” Citing the Moon, near-Earth asteroids, and Lagrange points as destinations for this exploration, he told the subcommittee that Mars was “a key long-term destination.” Regarding the previous policy, Cooke said “At the highest level, the President and his staff, as well as NASA senior leadership, closely reviewed the Augustine Committee report, and came to the same conclusion as the Committee: The Constellation program was on an unsustainable trajectory.” The second witness, A. Thomas Young, a former Executive Vice President of Lockheed Martin Corporation, who also served in a number of senior positions at NASA, outlined a series of questions the space agency should answer about the new policy for Congress to make an informed decision. “I believe we are a long way from having a commercial industry capable of satisfying human space transportation needs. In my view, this is a risk too high and not a responsible course. The commercial crew option should not be approved” he said.
Gifford’s first question was to Cooke, asking if various NASA notices to its contractors were a direct contravention of law. Cooke said major work by contractors remains in place, explaining that some projects had not been started because of a lack of funding. He later told Olson “this is an area that is very sensitive,” but repeated that NASA is following the terms of the contracts.
Subcommittee members were concerned about job losses. Cooke said he did not have any numbers about job losses or gains if NASA contracts with commercial providers for transportation to the space station. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) took issue with worries about job losses, noting that commercial entities built the nation’s railroads and the air carriers. Rohrabacher asked Young a series of questions about his opposition to commercial transportation to the station. Young responded that he did not have issues with private companies, but said NASA’s close involvement would be crucial to ensuring program success. Young spoke a similar approach taken by the Air Force in the 1990s to reform its acquisition practices. “The results were devastating,” he said, calling it a disaster that resulted, six years later, in double the expected expenditures and half the program content, resulting in more than $11 billion in mission failure.
The approach and tone of a hearing by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation’s Subcommittee on Science and Space differed. This hearing featured seven witnesses, and was attended primarily by its chairman, Bill Nelson (D-FL). Nelson began, as he has done before, by faulting NASA’s budget rollout in February, saying it gave the perception that the President “has gutted the human space flight program. But that, in fact is a perception, that is not a fact.” Lost in the “angst” the rollout created was the proposed $6 billion increase for R&D over five years, and the decision to maintain the space station for an additional five years to 2020. Nelson explained the gap in U.S. transportation to the space station following the shuttle’s retirement was made in budget decisions many years ago (see this FYI, dated September 2005.) Nelson also spoke of using a backup shuttle for an additional flight. Regarding using shuttles for a longer period of time, he explained that three additional fuel tanks are unassembled, and that it would take at least two years before another shuttle would be ready to fly.
The views of the witnesses varied. A former astronaut, Lt. General Thomas Stafford, did not believe that commercial flights are possible within the foreseeable future. Other witnesses from NASA and the Federal Aviation Agency (which has jurisdiction over commercial space flights) described their procedures and emphasis on safety. A former NASA comptroller, Malcolm Peterson, outlined the challenges that private interests would face in securing investor financing for commercial crew transportation, although he was confident that commercial cargo flights will be successful. Peterson thought it would be “a very difficult hurdle” for U.S. corporations to compete with the rates of the Russian Soyuz for transportation to the shuttle.
Officials from three corporations - United Launch Alliance, Orbital Sciences Corporation, and SpaceX - assured Nelson that they would be able to provide commercial transportation services to the space station, with the president of SpaceX saying it would be able to do so within three years of the signing of a contract. They all spoke of their proven ability to deliver launch services for critical missions, such as the placement of national security satellites.
Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) was clear in her opposition to the new space policy, and while saying “in the end, we will have commercial capabilities” criticized as “simply the wrong approach” the renting of seats on the Soyuz for travel to the space station. Saying that “as of today, there is simply no assurance that commercial space capabilities are sufficiently advanced in their development to reduce the space flight gap or meet the lofty goals the President has set for the industry,” and “as an alternative approach to sending up a white flag for the nation’s premiere space science agency,” she described her legislation to continue shuttle flights to the station.
During the remainder of the hearing Nelson asked the witnesses a series of probing questions about scheduling, the ability of commercial providers to secure financing and compete with Russian transportation rates, safety concerns, the degree to which corporations would need federal funding, crew sizes, and the role of federal regulators. The general message from most of the witnesses was that commercial services for shuttle transportation was feasible, but there are many issues that must be resolved.
“We are going to try to make some decisions on our authorization and work with appropriators” said Nelson, later concluding the hearing by saying “We’re plowing new ground here in a time of exceptional opportunity.”