House Science Subcommittee Hearing on Funding for Deep Space Exploration

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Publication date: 
15 October 2015

A note to readers:  I will be retiring from the American Institute of Physics tomorrow.  Michael Henry will continue to write FYI.  I appreciate all of the support that AIP and FYI’s readers have provided during the last 26 years. – Richard Jones

A recurring theme of congressional hearings on NASA is the difficulty posed by constrained and uncertain budgets on the development of new programs.  This point was reiterated during an October 9 hearing of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee’s Subcommittee on Space.

This hearing, titled “Deep Space Exploration: Examining the Impact of the President’s Budget,” discussed many of the same points mentioned  in FYI #2 on a September 26, 1989  House Science subcommittee hearing on NASA’s proposed lunar and Mars missions.  That FYI explained “This subcommittee has traditionally been the friendliest panel on Capitol Hill to NASA.  As [then] Subcommittee Chairman Bill Nelson remarked, ‘this subcommittee has always felt that it is important to have an aggressive space program.’  It is supportive of the President’s initiative, but at the same time frustrated at what budgetary constraints are doing to NASA’s plans.”

There are striking similarities between last week’s hearing and that of more than a quarter-century ago.  At both hearings questions were raised about the plan for a manned mission to Mars and the lack of a cost estimate to do so.  Then and now the possibility of private sector or international involvement were mentioned.  Also raised at both hearings was the desirability of a manned mission to the Moon before going to Mars.  The 1989 hearing touched on other familiar themes: the difficulty of holding to schedule, the stimulus the space program gives to the development of technology and the engagement of children in STEM, and the necessity of communicating the value of the space program.  A subcommittee member, noted the 1989 FYI, “stressed the importance of quantifying ‘what we get out of this’ in order to build support for further space exploration among the American people and in Congress.  It will not be enough, he said, to only point to new discoveries that will be made, and which would not seem to be relevant to the needs of the average American.  In this respect, he said, the Administration, the Congress, scientists, and the news media have failed to convey the importance of further exploration.”

Last week’s hearing received testimony from Douglas Cooke and Daniel Dumbacher, former senior officials at NASA.  Both discussed the difficulties involved in the development of space hardware because of uncertain budgets.  Some subcommittee members criticized the Administration for requesting less funding for specific NASA programs than they contended was required.  The impact of funding shortfalls on the scheduling of future Space Launch System and Orion Crew Vehicle missions was discussed, as was the effect that government shutdowns have on the programs, resulting in budget inefficiencies and instability.    Commented Dumbacher, “Budget stability is THE major issue in executing these programs.”

This hearing and the one in 1989 demonstrated strong bipartisan support for NASA and its programs and confidence in the agency to deliver.  Said one subcommittee member, quoting a former astronaut: “this is not rocket science, this is political science.”