Last week’s appearance of NASA Administrator Charles Bolden before the Senate Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee was fairly low-key. There was discussion about the steps that the agency was taking to improve its management of projects such as the James Webb Space Telescope, work at various NASA centers and facilities, transitioning components of the Constellation Program, and the disposition of the four space shuttles. There was little disagreement about the FY 2012 NASA request, in contrast to a hearing held a year ago when senators were openly skeptical if not hostile to the Administration’s proposed human spaceflight initiative.
Of note, Subcommittee Chairman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) expressed her thanks for the Administration’s $519 million requested increase for NASA’s Space Science Directorate. She spoke of her support for the President’s goals of out-building, out-innovating, and out-educating international competitors. But she cautioned Bolden that big cuts could be made to some NASA programs, specifically the James Webb Space Telescope, by other Members of Congress. Mikulski said the subcommittee was troubled by the management of the telescope, referring to an independent review that was released last November. Both Democratic and Republican appropriators, she warned, will not support projects with repeated cost overruns, predicting that the House would undoubtedly balk at projects that are not managed well. Mikulski restated her support for the telescope, but wanted assurances that Bolden was moving quickly to correct deficiencies in its management. Bolden outlined the staffing and other steps he has taken, and said NASA will have firmer cost figures by the end of April.
Mikulski reiterated her support for the human spaceflight program, as did Ranking Member Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX). Hutchison asked a number of questions about how NASA is using Constellation’s technology in the new spaceflight program. She expressed concern that the Administration’s request was placing full utilization of the International Space Station at risk, and was deliberately preventing the Orion space capsule from being deployed in a reconfigured program by 2016. Hutchison also questioned the money NASA was giving to private corporations for the development of a commercial vehicle.
Other questions were asked about steps NASA is taking to reduce the nature of its high risk programs and the schedule for the development of a 130-ton heavy-lift rocket. The controversy and rhetoric marking last year’s hearing before this and other committees was absent, with many questions centering on jobs, and the forthcoming decision about where NASA would be placing the four retired space shuttles.
The House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee held its hearing on the FY 2012 NASA request in early March. While concern was raised at both hearings about how NASA is implementing the agency’s new authorization act, and management issues, there were no “red flags” at either hearing. As is true of every other budget request this year, the degree to which the appropriators will be able to provide requested funding will depend more on the larger forces at work – specifically how the on-going controversy about the overall level of future government spending will be resolved.