Chairman Boehlert's Views on NASA Policy and Budget

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Publication date: 
27 April 2004

House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) addressed the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) last week, and as is usually the case, spoke unambiguously about NASA science policy and funding issues. Selections from his speech follow:

PRESIDENT'S VISION OF THE SPACE PROGRAM: "Let me start by saying, as I often have, that the President deserves enormous credit for doing what many of us had been calling for - laying out a clear vision for the space program, making tough choices, and providing a plan that does not rely on Apollo-like spikes in spending."

BOEHLERT ON PRESIDENT'S SPACE PROGRAM: ". . . I think the President's proposal ought to be the blueprint for how we move forward. But what do I mean by 'in its broad outlines'? I mean that the U.S. should have an ongoing human space flight program. I mean that the long-term goal of our human space flight program ought to be going to Mars and beyond. I mean that our intermediate goal ought to be returning to the moon. I mean that to finance such a venture - among other reasons - we need to stop flying the Space Shuttle by a date certain - the sooner, the better."

OUTLOOK IN CONGRESS: "Now that [the above described program] is indeed a broad outline, and these points may even seem unarguable to some of you. But, believe me, they are open to debate among the public and in the Congress. In fact, I have no idea of how the Congress would vote right now on any of the notions I just mentioned, although I imagine that most Members would be reluctant to simply walk away from the human space flight program."

RETURNING TO THE MOON: "Let's look, for example, at returning to the moon, which the President has proposed accomplishing between 2015 and 2020. I don't have much doubt that we have the technological capability to do that. After all, with a lot less experience and technical know-how, Neil Armstrong landed on the moon less than nine years after President Kennedy announced the goal of getting there by 1970. So the issue isn't technology, per se; it's resources. The President has quite properly announced that he is not going to seek Apollo-like funding, but even the requests he has put forward raise questions."

OVERALL FUNDING OUTLOOK: "As part of the exploration initiative, the President has proposed increasing the NASA budget by 5.6 percent in the next fiscal year, to about $16.2 billion. I just can't imagine that that's going to happen, and I don't think it should. Total federal non-security, domestic discretionary spending in fiscal 2005 is likely to increase by less than half a percent. Congress may even freeze spending, as the House voted to do in its Budget Resolution. In such a budget, should NASA receive almost a 6 percent increase? Is it the highest domestic spending priority? I don't think so, and I doubt my colleagues will either. NASA is in an appropriations bill in which it competes for funds against veterans programs, against housing programs, against environmental programs and against basic science and education programs - almost all of which are high priorities in my book. As Science Committee chairman, I'm especially concerned that we do right by the National Science Foundation, which Congress has said, in statute, ought to be increasing by 15 percent a year. I would note that a healthy NSF is the key to carrying out the education agenda you call for in your policy document. Moreover, Congress isn't likely to even take up the NASA [VA/HUD] spending bill until after Election Day. (I'm not proud of that, but it's reality.) That means that for at least a month, and potentially for several months, NASA will be funded by a continuing resolution. That, in turn, means that for some portion of next year, NASA will be flat-funded and will not be allowed to start new initiatives. That alone could delay aspects of the exploration initiative."

NASA PROGRAM FUNDING: "And my funding concerns are not limited to those raised by the funding competition between NASA and other agencies. The President's proposal also raises tough questions about the funding balance within NASA. . . . The budget proposes to fund the exploration initiative, in part, by cutting Earth Science programs, eliminating some Space Science projects, and flat funding aeronautics . . . . We may indeed have to rethink some other programs to fund the exploration initiative, but I'm concerned that the proposed cuts may go too far. The Earth Science cuts, for example, may hinder climate change research, itself an Administration research priority. Do I think that it's more important to know more about the Earth than it is to know more about Mars? I do, and I don't think it's a close question. And knowing more about the Earth will take plenty of aerospace know-how."

SCHEDULE: "My point is that the pace at which we move ahead probably will have to be slower than what the President proposed because funds are likely to be more limited than he assumed. How much slower? Slow enough to delay a return to the moon beyond 2020? It's too soon to know that. My staff is continuing to pour through the proposed budget to see how we might put together a NASA budget for fiscal 2005 that would be affordable, that would not cut valuable programs excessively, and that would allow work to get started on programs critical to the exploration initiative. And we will go through this process with a keen awareness that stretching out programs too much can make them more expensive and less effective in the end. . . . I should say that there are reasons beyond financial austerity to move slowly right now. There are lots of questions about the proposed initiative that NASA cannot answer yet - pretty fundamental ones, like what kind of launch system the Crew Exploration Vehicle and cargo vehicles might use. Congress should get more answers before ramping up the new program too steeply. Even some top NASA officials have pointed out that NASA's own planning for the initiative is still in its very early stages - in part, because only a handful of people at NASA really knew what the exploration initiative would entail before the President's January speech. I don't think it's wrong for Congress to move slowly while NASA itself is sorting out how it wants to move ahead - even as we acknowledge that NASA needs some money just to do that sorting out."

SPACE STATION: "Can the Station be completed by 2010, as the President's proposal assumes? That seems like a stretch. As we all know, the Shuttle now is not scheduled to resume flight until at least next March. (That's a decision I applaud, by the way. Administrator O'Keefe has kept his word that safety and safety alone will determine when the Shuttle launches again.) That's already a delay in the schedule on which the 2010 date was developed. What's the schedule beyond that? NASA hasn't decided yet. But NASA has indicated that the assumption is that five flights will go up each year. That's more than Members of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board have said is prudent; some of them have suggested a limit of four with existing resources. And, of course, the schedule assumes that every flight will go off without a hitch - hardly our most recent experience. So what's going to happen in the not unlikely event that Station completion is delayed? There are also questions about the Station itself. The President wisely has proposed scrapping the existing research agenda for the Station and developing a new agenda focused on biological questions that we need to solve to keep astronauts in space for long periods of time. What will that agenda be? NASA is just starting to develop it. How much will it cost? Well, there's a number in the budget, but it's hard to cost out a program that doesn't even exist as an idea yet. Will it conduct research that can only be done in space? Will the public or the astronauts themselves object to research in which astronauts are, in effect, being used as human guinea pigs? Will the Space Station remain in operation long enough to draw conclusions from whatever research agenda is assembled? So, there are lots of questions. I would note that Senator [Sam] Brownback [R-KS] and Congressman [Dana] Rohrabacher [R-CA] - the chairmen respectively of the Senate and House space subcommittees - have begun raising interesting questions about what would happen if we discontinued the Shuttle more rapidly. I don't know the answer to that - and I'm skeptical of plans that just assume private sector alternatives will materialize - but it's a question worth asking."

NASA AUTHORIZATION BILL: ". . . we ought to have a NASA reauthorization bill that will lay out the broad blueprint of how the human space flight program should move ahead. An authorization bill will enable Congress to have the broad debate you [AIAA] call for to 'come to a clear agreement on the goals of the nation's civil space program.' An authorization bill should also include specific milestones that NASA will have to clear as it moves forward to ensure that Congress can continue to review each step of the program before too much money is invested to turn back. Coming up with such a bill and moving it through the Congress will not be easy, but we are committed to pursuing it. I hope we will be able to introduce a bill around July 4th and move it through the House in September. We are in close contact with our Senate counterparts, and Senators [John] McCain [R-AZ] and Brownback hope to introduce their authorization bill pretty soon. I hope the authorization process will give a green light - or at least an amber light - to the space exploration initiative, broadly defined."

APPROPRIATIONS COMMITTEE: ". . . we'll work with the Appropriations Committee to come up with a budget for next year, and, as I've already indicated, that's likely to differ from what the President's requested - although it should still be consistent with moving ahead with a lunar program over time."

COMMUNICATING WITH CONGRESS: "I should note that none of this will work out very well without the active involvement of people like you. Members of Congress need to hear from their constituents, and especially from informed constituents like all of you, as they sort out the thorny questions and uncomfortable choices that reviewing the President's proposal will entail. I think it's fair to say that most Members of Congress have not begun to wrestle with these questions, or even to take the space initiative seriously, or to ponder what alternatives there are to the President's proposal - and in broad terms there aren't a lot of palatable alternatives if you want to continue the human space flight program."

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