A Great Day on Capitol Hill: House Appropriations Hearing on FY 2016 NASA Budget Request

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Publication date: 
12 March 2015

NASA has always enjoyed strong and bipartisan support from House and Senate appropriators.  That support increased this year when Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) assumed the chairmanship of the House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee.  Culberson replaces Frank Wolf (R-VA) who retired at the end of the last session of Congress.

“You’re going to find all of us arm in arm making sure that NASA gets the support that you need, sir, to do your job,” Culberson told NASA Administrator Charles Bolden as he opened a March 4 hearing on the agency’s FY 2016 budget request.  Culberson has long spoken of his support for NASA and the National Science Foundation, remarking at this hearing that he asked to serve on this subcommittee so that he could help both agencies.

The other appropriators at this hearing made clear their support for NASA.  Despite this sentiment, finding the money to fully fund NASA’s $18,529.1 million request, an increase of $518.9 million or 2.8 percent, is not going to be easy. Saying “you’ve got a lot on your plate and never seem to have enough resources,” Culberson spoke of “a very difficult budget environment.”  He stated that the subcommittee needs to fully fund the FBI and other federal law enforcement programs, and “adequately” fund other programs in their FY 2016 funding bill, specifically mentioning the National Science Foundation, the Department of Commerce, and NIST.  It “is going to be very challenging” he said.  Culberson said the Obama Administration’s request (probably the government-wide request) “is one that we’re simply not going to be able to achieve because it assumes a lot of tax increases . . . which certainly aren’t going to happen.”

As expected, a wide range of questions were asked about NASA’s various programs.  Of particular importance were Culberson’s comments toward the conclusion of the hearing when he spoke of what he hoped would be the subcommittee’s legacy. Referring to current law that requires NASA to follow the Planetary Science Decadal Survey, Culberson said “I really want to see NASA focus on those Decadal Surveys, I really think that’s the proper guide” He continued,  “I’d like to work with you, [Ranking Member] Mr. Fattah [D-PA] trying to expand that to help make sure that NASA is following the recommendations of the Decadal Survey in Heliophysics and Earth Sciences and Astrophysics as well.”  He later added, “That’s my North Star, just to make sure that we’re following the recommendations of the best minds in the scientific community in each of these areas of specialty.”

Also of interest was Bolden’s response to question involving the supply of plutonium-238 used in radioisotope power systems on some NASA missions.  Bolden said NASA will have a sufficient supply for all outer planet missions, the Mars 2020 mission, and other missions that the agency has in its inventory and the planning stage.  Regarding future programs, Bolden compared the Commercial Crew; International Space Station; and Orion and Space Launch System programs to a three-legged stool that’s “absolutely critical.”   Bolden said that there has been no difficulty in working with the Russian space agency in the support of the Space Station, but said there was no contingency plan that could provide immediate alternative transportation to the station.  NASA has a goal of using American commercial transportation to the station by 2017, a schedule Bolden expressed much confidence in provided Congress appropriate the necessary funding.

A Senate appropriations committee’s hearing on the NASA request was cancelled last week because of a snow storm and has not been rescheduled.

Note: selections are from a transcript prepared by and used with the permission of CQ Roll Call