The central focus of a hearing earlier this month of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee was whether NASA’s FY 2012 budget request was a path forward for the space agency. Echoing comments heard a year ago, many committee members are unconvinced that the Administration’s plan to use commercial transportation services to fly American astronauts to the space station will work.
Committee chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) got right to the point: “I’m concerned that the future of our space program is in very serious jeopardy. It has been ever since the President ran a line through the word ‘Constellation.’” Not helping the chairman’s perceptions is his contention that NASA’s FY 2012 request ignored Congress and the legislation it enacted last year. “It’s my opinion that someone in the White House has very little interest in working with the Congress,” he said, later adding “I don’t know what the problem is . . . NASA is not listening to our message.”
While this mistrust was supposed to have been settled by the passage of the NASA Authorization Act last September, committee members of both parties remain uncertain if not suspicious about the Administration’s intentions. Helping to quiet these fears – to some degree - was the stellar presentation of NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. It is obvious that members have the highest respect for Bolden and his integrity, and they responded to Bolden’s deeply felt concerns about the assurance of astronaut safety. Bolden spoke with conviction that using commercial services to transport U.S. astronauts to the space station would be faster, safer, and more efficient. He disputed statements that the Administration was ignoring the will of Congress, assuring the committee that NASA was listening to Congress and doing its best to implement the authorization act under difficult financial constraints. Bolden spoke with confidence that commercial services would fly U.S. astronauts to the station, describing the successful record of companies in placing satellites. “I’m not concerned about their ability to deliver” he told a skeptical committee member.
Hall is not philosophically opposed to the use of corporate flights, saying that he had long hoped that companies would one day provide such services. Hall and Bolden differ if that time has arrived.
The chairman’s concerns were shared by Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX). “I had thought that the Administration agreed with the compromise that was enacted into law, but I am afraid that I do not see it reflected in the proposed NASA budget,” she told Bolden. Johnson disapproved of the requested cuts to the human exploration budget, charging that it would delay or remove significant milestones for the agency in future years. At the conclusion of the hearing she told Bolden “It’s extraordinary that you are sitting there defending the president’s budget. I think it’s grossly inadequate.”
There was discussion throughout this two-hour hearing about space science programs. One member expressed support for the astrophysics program and the discovery of new planets. There was also concern about the adequacy of the agency’s earth science programs. Bolden described problems confronting some earth satellite replacement programs, and starkly warned the committee “we are in dire straits as a nation when it comes to weather and climate prediction.” He was blunt in calling, as “dumb things” congressional attempts to defund a satellite program that would measure, among other data, shifting changes in the world’s climate. “I don’t do global warming, I do earth science,” he said emphatically.
Bolden also drew the budgetary connection between the human exploration program and the science program. He told the committee that he “cannot separate human space flight from science.” “Today my science budget is under attack because of the rising cost of a launch vehicle. If I can find a way to get a cheaper launch vehicle, I can fly more science.” He briefly outlined the large operational and infrastructure costs for flying a NASA vehicle to low earth orbit destinations such as the space station, and contended it would cost the taxpayer less money to buy commercial transportation services.
There was also discussion about the impacts of funding reductions to the agency’s future budgets. Saying that current budget projections are going to make it difficult to achieve agreed-upon goals for the development of new human exploration systems, Bolden warned the committee “all bets are off” if Congress cuts the agency’s budget.
While many of the committee members were critical, and sometimes sharply critical, of the FY 2012 request, all would subscribe to Hall’s opening comments when he told Bolden “we would like to work together with you.” The tone of this hearing differed from that of thewhere many of the same questions were asked, but the reaction of the appropriators seemed, on the whole, appreciably more supportive.