A House Science Committee hearing earlier this month had two bottom lines: support by committee members for NASA's return to the moon and an eventual manned mission to Mars, and worry that the Administration's projected budget for the agency will not get the job done. Said committee chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY): "while NASA may have relatively smooth sailing right now, we ignore the clouds on the horizon at our own peril. . . . There is simply not enough money in NASA's budget to carry out all of the tasks it is undertaking on the current schedule. That's a fact."
This was the second Science Committee hearing in the last four months for NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, who was the only witness (see http://www.aip.org/fyi/2005/109.html.) Griffin has considerable support from committee members, with Boehlert calling him "our hero," a sentiment endorsed by the committee's Ranking Minority Member Bart Gordon (D-TN).
The problem at the center of this November 3 hearing was Griffin's estimate of a budget shortfall in the range of "three to five" billion dollars "entirely in the shuttle line" through FY 2010. Griffin told the committee that "we are okay in ‘06 and ‘07, as best we understand it," with the shortfall expected in 2008. Commented Boehlert, "And as far as I can see, the only thing that 2008 has to recommend is that it hasn't happened yet. I don't know why anyone would assume that we're going to be flush with cash in 2008."
A major focus of NASA's activities is developing a capability to transport humans to low-earth orbit and beyond after the shuttle is retired. Griffin acknowledged that in order to pay for this effort, "painful choices must be made," including descoping, discontinuing, or deferring research and technology projects in the exploration portion of the budget. The agency's objective is to close the gap between the retirement of the space shuttle in 2010 and its replacement, the Crew Exploration Vehicle, pushed up to 2012.
Regarding the agency's science programs, Griffin said, "we propose maintaining a robust program of space science while we complete" the Crew Exploration Vehicle. He stated that a Hubble mission decision will be made after the next flight of the space shuttle. "An in-depth review of the technical challenges and cost projections" of the James Webb space telescope is ongoing, with Griffin saying that he would report to the Congress in early 2006 about the agency's intentions. Griffin drew a distinction between space, earth and planetary sciences and astronomy, and life science research which supports human exploration. Life science research has been cut, a notable example being the agency's termination of the centrifuge module for the space station.
Members expressed concern that in order to pay for NASA's exploration program, funding will be reduced for science programs. Rep. Mark Udall (D-CO) said "I'm worried that NASA is going to have great difficulty in keeping a vital and robust set of space and earth science missions on track in a tightly-constrained NASA budgetary environment. I hope I'm wrong, because these science programs, as well as the university research activities that they support, are in many ways NASA's crown jewels in the eyes of the general public."
The degree to which Griffin is able to maintain a robust space science program will become apparent in early February, when NASA submits its FY 2007 budget request to Congress.