Lawmakers Question Cost, Impacts of Space Exploration Initiative

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Publication date: 
27 February 2004

"Before we get on board, we have to determine the extent of the ticket we're willing to purchase for the journey." - House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert

The possible cost of a human exploration mission to the moon and Mars, and how it might affect other R&D programs within and outside of NASA, were the focus of a February 12 hearing of the House Science Committee. Although committee members have pressed NASA and the Administration for a clear goal for the human space flight program, many remain unsure about whether President Bush's vision, announced earlier this year, is the right one at the right time. As the committee's ranking minority member Bart Gordon (D-TN) noted, "this will not be an easy year to start major new initiatives in the face of a growing deficit." Committee chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) declared himself "open-minded." OSTP Director John Marburger and NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, sitting at the witness table, explained that the program's incremental nature made its total cost and schedule impossible to predict at this time.

Remarking that "NASA has had a mixed record on the credibility of its budgeting,"Gordon pushed the witnesses repeatedly for a cost estimate for the entire initiative. The chairman of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee, Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) agreed that "the question Mr. Gordon is asking is a very relevant question.... I think that we do need specifics." O'Keefe's response: "There is no way to put a price tag on a program that is in definition." A presidentially-appointed commission is currently working to develop an implementation plan for the initiative (see FYI #20).

About half a dozen committee members echoed Gordon's concerns that "NASA's other missions not be cannibalized." Rohrabacher urged NASA to look for savings through commercialization whenever possible, so that science programs would not have to be cut. He added that he would expect the initiative to cannibalize other programs - "that's called setting priorities" - but he warned that all involved had to make decisions based on a clear understanding of what the priorities were.

Marburger said much of the $11 billion within NASA to be shifted to the exploration initiative would come from discontinuing the launch technologies program, reprioritizing space station research, and phasing out the shuttle. "Space science continues to be robust," he reported: NASA's outer planet missions and Sun-Earth connections program remain priorities, a new generation of space observatories is planned, and Solar Terrestrial Probes, although stretched out, would continue. He also voiced support for the continuation of NASA's aeronautics R&D and for Earth science, which he said would remain "the largest contributor to the interagency climate change science program." Marburger later added that "the way the [President's] vision is structured is good for science." The step-by-step framework of doing missions with no specific timeframe, as the money was available and the technologies ready, he said, "actually reduces the risk of invading science budgets in the future."

To questions about the intention to cancel the last Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission (currently under review), Marburger explained that with the safety recommendations made by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, the approaching end of Hubble's design life, and the increasing capabilities of adaptive optics, "the risk-benefit equation has been altered." He mentioned, though, that other options to extend Hubble's life besides a servicing mission could be explored. In other questioning, O'Keefe replied that if the human physiology and long-duration human space flight research now planned for the space station was not completed by the target date of 2016, "we'll have to continue that activity beyond that point." Asked what he thought would be the greatest uncertainties in estimating the cost, O'Keefe said development of the necessary power generation and propulsion capabilities.

Some members were supportive of the President's vision, like Tom Feeney (R-FL), who stated, "we can pick it apart with 535 different views of what the optimal role of America ought to be in space, [but] I do believe that this focused, I think it is bold, it's affordable." Others were reserving judgment until more information was available. Boehlert predicted a "lengthy and spirited debate...which could easily take us to the end of this calendar year." In closing, he said that this first in a series of hearings was "not the beginning of the end; this is the end of the beginning."

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