The House Science Committee’s Subcommittee on Space held a hearing on February 27 to review HR 823, the Space Leadership Preservation Act. The hearing highlighted the “over-riding concerns about a lack of stability in the vision and purpose of NASA’s human spaceflight program over many decades,” according to a hearing charter prepared by Science Committee Republican staff. Witnesses were given the opportunity to outline components of HR 823 and to provide recommendations for challenges faced by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) based on a December 2012 report authored by the Space Foundation, “Pioneering: Sustaining US Leadership in Space.”
Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) opened the hearing stating that “today, a question exists about NASA’s vision, namely, whether there is one.” He went on to show his support for the Space Leadership Act and for the authors of this legislation, who have been long-term advocates for space exploration. Smith recognized that “NASA too often is hampered by short term decisions that have long term negative impact.” He suggested that the subcommittee take a step back and “work to put [NASA] on the long term path to achieve worthy and inspirational goals.”
Subcommittee Chairman Steven Palazzo (R-MS) expressed his interest in working with Representative John Culberson (R-TX) and House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee Chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA) to include the provisions of the Space Leadership Preservation Act into the NASA reauthorization process. Palazzo recognized that “the missions that NASA should be focused on are complex, they are expensive, and they are long term. Too often decisions made, whether by Congress, by the Administration or within the Agency itself, hamper and undermine the necessary commitment to programs and projects that require patience and stability instead of uncertainty and shortcuts.” He stressed that he would like to work with Democrats and Republicans “to ensure [the US] remains firmly fixed on an ambitious and worthy space program. Even in in these times of deadlines and cliffs, we must look to provide leadership for a long term goal for NASA and our nation.”
Ranking Member Donna Edwards (D-MD) began by expressing that she wants to work to ensure that NASA’s space and aeronautic programs remain “an integral part of America’s innovation agenda.” She outlined that “this bill seeks to set in a statute the term of the NASA Administrator, create a Board of Directors for the Agency, and direct that Board, among other functions, to create a budget for NASA that would be transmitted to the Congress each year in advance of the President’s fiscal year budget request.” However, she disagreed with the bill’s “attempts to model NASA’s management on that of the National Science Foundation” since one of the main functions of the NSF is issuing grants for research while NASA is a research and development agency “with multiple missions and development programs, as well as operational responsibilities for the International Space Station.”
The first panel of witnesses was comprised of Wolf and Culberson who worked on the current version of the bill and who worked closely with Chairman Smith on the version of the bill that was introduced in the 112th Congress. Wolf began by pointing to a National Research Council report stating that NASA lacks strategic direction. “It’s hard to make progress towards any goal if we don’t know where we’re going – much less when and how we’re supposed to get there…. It’s clear that the cycle of program cancelations following the start of each new administration come at great cost to the taxpayers and grinds any progress made towards one human spaceflight system and mission to a halt.” He explained that the bill tries to identify solutions to NASA’s problems regarding their lack of direction by drawing “on the ‘best practices’ of other federal agencies.”
Wolf explained that the six year term laid out in the bill for NASA’s administrator will ensure that the term spans two administrations and that will “make sure that the person is in office long enough to be held accountable for long-term projects and programs.” The bill language on NASA’s board of directors is based on the National Science Board that oversees the NSF. He also stated that the bill’s requirement for a “ direct budget submission to Congress is based on other independent agencies, like the Legal Services Corporation, to provide a more complete picture than [the Office of Management and Budget] may want to share.”
Culberson expressed his strong opposition to NASA’s switching missions. “It is unacceptable to allow our space program to atrophy because the vision, or lack thereof, changes with political whims from year to year. I have provided each of you with a chart that reveals we have spent over $20 billion dollars in the last 20 years, more than an entire year of NASA’s budget, on programs that have been started and then canceled.” He explained the role of NASA’s board of directors, as described in the bill, would be “empowered to propose long term goals for space exploration.” Regarding the board’s relationship with policymakers, he stated “the board will not supplant the constitutional authority of Congress or the Administration, but it will add critical insight to the true needs of the agency.”
Culberson also explained that “this legislation extends the long range contracting statute to other spacecraft, a practice that currently applies to expendable launch vehicles, hopefully removing these larger investments from the cycle of pillar to post funding. Allowing NASA to build spacecraft the way the Navy builds nuclear reactors would be a game changer.” He added that “having the ability to plan for multiple years would allow NASA to save money and attain long term goals.”
The second panel of witnesses included A. Thomas Young, Executive Vice President of Lockheed Martin and Elliot Pulham, Chief Executive Officer of the Space Foundation. Young began with words of apprehension, stating that he has “been associated with the civil space program and NASA for more than five decades. [He is] more concerned today about its future than at any time during [his] involvement.”
Young defined NASA issues requiring attention, including “maintaining NASA as the premier space organization; maintaining the capabilities of the US industry to be NASA’s partner in implementing challenging space projects; achieving balance between the NASA program and the budget; establishing a credible human exploration program; recognizing the importance of projects focused upon understanding dark energy and dark matter, searching for Earth-like planets in other solar systems, returning samples from the surface of Mars, expanding our climate knowledge, etc. as identified in Decadal Surveys; realizing the science and research potential of the [International Space Station]…; and assuring sustainability of strategy and programs over many political cycles.” He also emphasized that “’de-politicizing NASA’ must be addressed. NASA has been politicized to the extent that the capabilities of NASA and the success of the civil space program are being adversely impacted.”
Young recognized that while the country does face economic challenges, the US should still pursue knowledge in areas, such as space, where we have a leadership position. He said that the Decadal Surveys have identified projects which could be used as a guide for the civil space program. He also recommended conducting a review to study whether work on the International Space Station should continue beyond 2020.
Pulham defined the Space Foundation’s Pioneering report recommendations in his testimony. He highlighted the need for the de-politicization of NASA, establishing a “formal short- and long- term planning and guidance framework for the agency,” conducting reviews and streamlining the Space Act to focus on pioneering purposes rather than non-mission essential responsibilities. He also stated the need for “deploying financing, appropriation and procurement tools found in other parts of the government to permit NASA the flexibility it needs.”
Pulham noted the similarities between the proposed legislation and the Pioneering report. These include the acknowledgement of the effects of the continuously shifting programmatic changes which have caused NASA to not be able to complete major initiatives. Other similarities include the view that “many NASA problems are compounded by the mechanics of the budgeting process.” The two documents also agree that the priorities laid out in the Decadal Surveys are a good model for moving forward. Where the Space Leadership Preservation Act and the Pioneering report differ are their reasons for the causes of the instability within NASA.
During the question period, Palazzo asked witnesses about whether they could state NASA’s current mission, noting that it seems undefined. Witnesses agreed with this lack of definition and pointed to the Space Act’s 26 strategic priorities to illustrate that point. Regarding a question about the upcoming NASA authorization bill, Young emphasized that there are times when the US needs to be bold and there are times when the US needs to be austere before highlighting areas where there could be high return on investment.
Edwards asked witnesses to comment on whether NASA needed a focus on a particular destination or whether it should focus on technological advances necessary for a robust space program. Young responded that human spaceflight programs cannot just be about building rockets. It has to also focus on defining how spacecraft will be used. Young mentioned that it is critical for the human spaceflight program to have a destination. Edwards also wanted to know how a multi-year budget would affect NASA’s larger programs, particularly from the perspective of NASA’s industrial partners. Young responded that long term stability would positively affect the relationship with NASA and its industry partners.
There seemed to be agreement from the witnesses as well as Members on both sides that NASA could benefit from a more clearly defined mission. Both Democrats and Republicans were also concerned about the effects of short term budget cycles on long term NASA programs.