Space Shuttle Hearing, Hubble Space Telescope Briefing

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Publication date: 
29 September 2004

"It seems to me that we've got two pay for the past and also prepare to pay for the future. The past being how do we fix the existing shuttle, how do we make sure the space station is working, and at the same time with a limited amount of money embark on new missions to Mars and new missions to the moon and a new vehicle? ...I don't think this all adds up." - Senator John Breaux (D-LA)

Last week, in its FY 2005 funding bill for VA/HUD/Independent Agencies, the Senate Appropriations Committee provided $800.0 million in emergency funding for high-priority NASA activities: $500.0 million for efforts to return the shuttle fleet to safe operation and $300.0 million for a servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope (see In a September 8 hearing, Members of the Senate Commerce Committee examined progress toward the shuttle's return to flight and questioned whether NASA could afford to fix its current problems and at the same time embark on a bold new exploration initiative. Science, Technology and Space Subcommittee Chairman Sam Brownback (R-KS), who chaired the hearing, opined that "the more we spend on this legacy system, the more we mortgage our future.... The time has come to find alternatives, I believe, to the shuttle."

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe testified that the agency has "conditionally closed" five of the 15 Columbia Accident Investigation Board recommendations for returning the shuttle safely to flight, and he hopes to close out the remaining 10 "by year's end." General Thomas Stafford, Co-chair of an independent Return to Flight Task Group, concurred with O'Keefe's status report, but cautioned that "significant challenges" and "considerable work" lie ahead before the shuttles are ready to fly again. Brownback noted that in July, NASA doubled the estimated cost of return-to-flight activities, from $1.1 billion to $2.2 billion. "You've done five of the 15 items that are required, so you've got 10 more yet to go," he pointed out. "Are we anywhere close to really knowing what this is actually going to cost?" "It's getting a lot closer, that's for sure," O'Keefe responded; "I don't see any new unknowns coming down the road."

Senators Trent Lott (R-MS), Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), and Bill Nelson (D-FL) all questioned NASA's plans to retire the shuttle before completion of a new crew exploration vehicle (CEV). Nelson warned that going an extended period without manned spaceflight capability was "a dangerous position for the United States to be in." O'Keefe replied that, while returning the shuttle to flight and completing the space station, "we're concurrently developing under Project Constellation the crew exploration vehicle." He explained that demonstration of an unmanned CEV was expected by approximately 2008, "before there's ever an intent to complete the shuttle program." "All that stands in the way," he said, "is the endorsement by Congress of the president's budget request for this coming fiscal year."

Neither the House nor Senate Appropriations Committees would provide the President's full FY 2005 request for NASA. Of the funding level in the House bill, O'Keefe said it would significantly compromise the exploration agenda. The whole Project Constellation CEV effort would get "put in abeyance," he said, as well as the Project Prometheus effort to develop in-space nuclear propulsion. NASA's primary objectives, he added, are to return the shuttle to flight and to complete the International Space Station. "We can outline some very ambitious concepts," Sen. John Breaux (D-LA) remarked, "but if we don't fund it, we can't do it."

Brownback asked O'Keefe about a proposal by an "outside group" that the station could be completed with fewer shuttle flights than planned, "if you offload" some things. "What it really comes down to," O'Keefe said, is that the components have been designed to fit precisely into the shuttle's cargo bay. While NASA is actively exploring commercial alternatives, he said, "I don't see a real significant diminution of the flight rate."

Lott cited concerns about the morale and direction at NASA and the number of demands being placed on the agency, with the exploration initiative, the growing cost of returning the shuttle to flight, and efforts to service the Hubble Space Telescope. He warned O'Keefe to emphasize the tangible benefits of exploration: "The idea of just going to Mars doesn't, frankly, excite a lot of people in my state. They don't really care whether there's water up there or not. They'd rather have asphalt on the roads." He urged NASA to continue to focus on technology transfer and Earth sciences, or "you're going to lose the support of the American people." In closing, Brownback said, "we need to make sure that the policy directions are ones that the vast majority of the United States public supports, that it's not a partisan issue.... This is about America leading on forward."

Also in recent news, reports indicate that NASA intends to go forward with the design and testing phase for a robotic attempt to service the Hubble Space Telescope by the year 2007. NASA is reportedly looking at using the Canadian Space Agency's Dextrous Manipulator on an unmanned spacecraft as one option. In the meantime, as recommended by a National Research Council panel (see, NASA is not taking any actions that would preclude a manned servicing mission.

Past discoveries and future research using the Space Telescope were described by several Hubble scientists at a September 22 symposium sponsored by the American Astronomical Society and by Representatives Mark Udall (D-CO), Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD), Jim McDermott (D-WA), W. Todd Akin (R-MO), C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger (D-MD), Steny Hoyer (D-MD), Bart Gordon (D-TN), and Nick Lampson (D-TX). These Members were among the cosponsors of a resolution introduced by Udall in March supporting a servicing mission to Hubble (H. Res. 550). In the Senate, a similar resolution, S. Res. 324, was introduced by Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD).

"With Hubble, we were able to see for the first time that the universe in the past really did look different" than it does today, explained Space Telescope Science Institute Director Steve Beckwith. By looking at the past history of the universe's expansion, said Alex Filippenko of the University of California-Berkeley, scientists may be able to predict the fate of the universe. "A little bit of extra effort on Hubble right now could yield large dividends," he added. The Members present were unified in their praise of the Space Telescope. Bartlett declared that a country with a $2.4 trillion budget should be able to provide more funding for basic research. Of the Hubble, he said, "we will all be richer because it's out there." Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI) suggested an all-volunteer shuttle mission as one option for servicing it, and McDermott noted how the excitement of discoveries by the Hubble could inspire American students' interest in science.

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