NASA Administrator Discusses Agency's Future

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Publication date: 
12 July 2005

"More than two years after the president announced his vision for space exploration, NASA can barely give a definitive answer to a single question about its programs.... We are pretty much flying blind right now," House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) declared at a June 28 House Science Committee hearing on the space agency. Key members in both the House and the Senate have now introduced reathorization bills (S. 1281 and H.R. 3070) to guide NASA's future. (See FYI #108for selected details of the reauthorization bills.)

H.R. 3070, which he cosponsored, "provides a framework for moving forward," Boehlert continued. There are "two matters on which this bill is crystal clear," he told witness Michael Griffin, the NASA Administrator: "First, that we should move ahead with returning to the moon by 2020; and second, that human space flight programs cannot become the sole mission of the agency."

Although he identified himself as a supporter of President Bush's exploration initiative, Ranking Minority Member Bart Gordon (D-TN) questioned whether other NASA programs would become "bill-payers" for exploration. He raised a series of questions about NASA's plans, including the overall architecture of the initiative, "where are we going, how are we going to get there, what are we going to do when we get there, how long will it take, and how much will it cost?" Boehlert followed Gordon with a list of questions of his own, asking about the space station's final configuration and research agenda, the number of shuttle assembly flights needed, other means to transport crew and cargo to the station, the purpose and architecture of the lunar missions, plans to manage the cost overruns on the James Webb Space Telescope, and plans for U.S. utilization of the space station in the event that the Iran Non-proliferation Act of 2000 is not amended. (The Act in effect prohibits the U.S. from purchasing services of the Russian Soyuz vehicle after April 2006, forcing U.S. astronauts to rely on the shuttle as a crew return vehicle and remain on board only as long as the shuttle is docked to the station.)

Griffin, who was just confirmed as NASA's Administrator in April, replied that the agency is actively reviewing such questions and he hoped to have initial answers to most of them by September. He concurred with an earlier remark by Gordon that NASA slow down and postpone some of the farther-out objectives, such as human exploration of Mars, until more questions are answered and NASA has a better sense of what needs to be done first. He noted that NASA cannot proceed with the intended 28 shuttle flights to complete the space station "and still retire the shuttle by 2010" as called for in H.R. 3070. The agency is looking at "a redefined program of shuttle flights," which might impact the station's research agenda. He added that, as research aboard the station is being reoriented away from fundamental life science research and toward long-duration human space flight, NASA is reconsidering whether to install a centrifuge module. He also said that until the Crew Exploration Vehicle is operational, if NASA does not have access to Russian spacecraft, U.S. astronauts would only be able to use the station while the shuttle is docked to it - just a few weeks at a time. He testified that the Administration is planning to seek an amendment to the Iran Non-proliferation Act to "allow us to utilize the station together with our Russian partners." One of the Act's authors, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), conceded that while it was "a worthy effort...clearly it has not worked."

Griffin emphatically defended accelerating the development of a Crew Exploration Vehicle as one of his highest priorities. When Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI) criticized a proposal to "pull the plug" on collecting data from Voyager I, the spacecraft farthest from Earth and heading toward interstellar space. Griffin agreed that it seemed "rather dumb" but insisted the decision wait until completion of the ongoing reviews. Again, when Rep. Brad Miller (D-NC) questioned the impact of terminating much of the station's biomedical and life science research, Griffin acknowledged that it would have a major impact on researchers but added, "I cannot responsibly prioritize" such research above having U.S. access to space. "I'm not happy with it," he said, but "I don't know what else to do."

Gordon warned that, with the results of many of Griffin's reviews not due until almost the start of the new fiscal year, NASA's FY 2006 appropriation was not likely to give the agency much "room to maneuver." Griffin indicated that NASA would be putting forward an amendment to its original FY 2006 budget request. When Gordon asked whether it was necessary to legislate "firewalls" to prevent the human space flight programs from "poaching" on other NASA programs, Griffin stated that firewalls were unnecessary, noting that he has stated frequently and publicly "that I intend to, want to, and will protect NASA's science program" from human space flight budget demands, and "vice versa." Regarding the Hubble Space Telescope, he said that if the results of the first two shuttle return-to-flight missions were "favorable," he would recommend a shuttle servicing mission to the telescope.

The House Science Committee plans a mark-up of H.R. 3070 on July 18.

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