Hearings before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics revealed considerable skepticism about NASA’s realigned human spaceflight program. At both March hearings there were bipartisan complaints that the Administration disregarded key provisions of the NASA reauthorization act in the formulation of the FY 2012 budget request, and doubts that the Administration was committed to fully implementing this legislation.
The tone of these hearings was different from that of House and Senate appropriations hearings. While appropriators doubted that a crew capsule and heavy lift launch vehicle would be delivered on time, and questioned the degree to which Constellation hardware was being employed in the new configuration, the mood at the House and Senate hearings was generally positive and low key.
This tone contrasted with the Senate Commerce committee hearing. Here Ranking Member Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) was more critical, telling NASA officials “I don’t think we are in sync on how we get there.” Charging that senior officials do not seem committed to some provisions of the reauthorization act, she criticized the Administration for requesting less money for the heavy lift launch vehicle and the crew capsule than the act allows and for requesting a large funding increase to support commercial transportation services. Hutchison and Chairman Bill Nelson (D-FL) (who did not offer opening comments) criticized a mandated report that has only been submitted in a preliminary form.
A panel of NASA officials testified the agency was moving ahead on Constellation contract modifications, and assured senators they were working to adapt Constellation technology for use in the new human spaceflight program. When asked if NASA would be able to comply with the 2016 schedule established in the authorization act, the witnesses replied that scheduling and other issues would be addressed in the final transition report that will be released in late spring or this summer. Nelson was uneasy about the Administration’s intentions, warning “the President’s budget [request] is not going to be passed by this Congress.”
Nelson asked about three science programs. The first was about the loss of the Glory mission that was intended to provide better climate prediction data. Officials testified NASA is developing a plan that may involve both a short-term mission and 2019 mission. Nelson spoke about the James Webb Space Telescope’s cost and schedule overruns, cautioning “that’s not going to sit well around here in this budgetary environment.” There was also discussion about the production of Pu-238, and hopes that a funding impasse would be resolved.
Similar criticism was heard at a hearing of the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics about the reconfigured spaceflight program. House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) was clear in his opening statement, saying “The debate is over. This act is the law. NASA has its direction. The administration needs to acknowledge this, and act accordingly.” He continued, “But as we have seen from this FY 2012 budget request, the administration is trying to ignore the thrust of this act.” The senior Democrat on the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee, Jerry Costello (D-IL) was also critical, saying “we still have not received concrete answers on how NASA plans to transition away from the Constellation Program and achieve the goals outlined by Congress in the 2010 Authorization Act.”
Douglas Cooke, Associate NASA Administrator for the Exploration System Mission Directorate, testified at both this and the Senate hearing. Cooke told the House subcommittee, headed by chairman Steven Palazzo (R-MS), that NASA was moving aggressively to implement the provisions of the reauthorization act, while working within a constrained budget environment. NASA was employing Constellation technology when appropriate, using the previously developed rocket as a reference design that would initially be in the 70-100 metric ton range. Contracts are being modified as the legislation requires, although there are legal and technology issues regarding the launch vehicle that must be resolved.
Toward the end of the hearing, Cooke told the subcommittee, “we are trying to make the most of what we are given.” As has long been true, there is likely to be a mismatch between what Congress expects the space agency to do and the final appropriation. Chairman Hall aptly described this historic funding discrepancy when he said: “I’m very hopeful that we can preserve our position in space and keep our word with our foreign partners. We need our missions beyond low earth orbit. But I think we need to limit those to a time that the economy might dictate. I’ve heard it said at home we don’t want you guys going to the moon or to Mars or to some other mark out there until we can go to the grocery store. And I guess that’s what is going to guide us here – the economy.”