Yesterday’s afternoon hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee offered limited time for committee members to question Charles F. Bolden who has been nominated to be the new NASA Administrator, and Lori Garver as NASA’s Deputy Administrator. The hearing demonstrated strong bipartisan support for both nominees, and their confirmation by the full Senate seems assured.
Bolden and Garver were two of five nominees appearing before committee chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) and his colleagues. The start of the hearing was delayed by a Senate floor vote. After convening, so many senators and representatives testified about their support of various nominees that the appearance of Bolden and Garver was further delayed, and then truncated when Rockefeller left to act on other matters.
Rockefeller and Ranking Member Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) support the nominations. In his prepared remarks, Rockefeller described the five as “incredible nominees.” Hutchison, who urged Bolden’s nomination, said “I believe the Administration has chosen well with these nominees. They both have the depth and breadth of experience that I believe will be needed to keep NASA and our nation moving forward and securing our leadership in space exploration.”
Nominees at Senate confirmation hearings avoid policy pronouncements in their prepared remarks, a strategy followed by Bolden and Garver. Bolden outlined his overarching approach:
“Either we can invest in building upon our hard earned world technological leadership or we can abandon this commitment, ceding it to others who are working vigilantly to push the frontiers of space.
“If we choose to lead, we must earn that leadership by committing to confront the following challenges: - Build upon our investment in the ISS [International Space Station], a unique national laboratory, and a bridge to human exploration beyond low Earth orbit, as we safely and efficiently bring the shuttle era to a close. - Accelerate with a sense of urgency the development of a next generation launch system and human carrier to enable America and other space-faring nations of the world to execute the mission of expanding our human exploration beyond low Earth orbit. - Enhance NASA’s capability and organic expertise to provide credible scientific, technological, and engineering leadership to help us better understand our Earth environment. - Inspire the rising generation of boys and girls to become men and women committed to increasing knowledge in the fields of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) by making NASA and its programs relevant to the American public.
“Today we face a crisis of opportunity. We can either confront the aforementioned challenges of technological leadership that ensure our nation’s safety and security or cede that leadership and prestige to other nations. I ask each of you to help NASA turn these challenges into opportunities. . . . I ask all of you to help NASA ensure that our nation remains the leader in the world in aeronautics, technology, science, and the care of our environment.”
Garver took a similar approach, telling the committee:
“President Obama has promised to lead our government in a direction to make it work as effectively as it can for the American people. NASA must also continue to demonstrate its relevance, as a source of solutions for the problems we all face today. Every aspect of NASA’s programs can contribute in this way. . . .
“Human spaceflight is a symbol of U.S. leadership and technological advancement. Depending on your age, different space exploration milestones are binding memories of society. . . . I believe it is because space exploration represents the best in all of us. Our hearts and minds are a part of every mission. I believe we can and should do more to share this amazing chapter of space exploration with the public.
“Space exploration and cooperation on the International Space Station have opened up new relationships that continue to provide tremendous value to society. Expanded cooperative activities in robotic and human spaceflight should be considered.
“The nation’s investment in NASA has helped create a private sector workforce at least 10 times as large as the civil servant workforce. In addition, investment in NASA has led to new industries entirely independent from government funding that have contributed greatly to the U.S. economy over the past half century. I believe that a key role of NASA is to continue investing in programs and technologies that have the potential to develop into independent commercial industries of the future.”
Chairman Rockefeller’s questions to both nominees centered on his concern that NASA has drifted, and is no longer the inspiration to the American people it once was. “I need bolstering on NASA” he said, asking Bolden and Garver what they would do to restore the agency to its former position. Rockefeller went on to say that NASA was “more a splendid story of the past” which since then “had some really bad mishaps.” He told the nominees that support for NASA has to be earned every year, warning that “it is not a given.” Later, Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) spoke of his similar concerns, saying “a lot of the magic is gone.”
Bolden described his goals of safety and efficiency for the agency, increasing R&D funding, exciting youth, attracting commercial interests, and getting beyond low earth orbit. Garver spoke of her plans “to make NASA relevant to the nation and the world.”
Ranking Member Hutchison has a strong interest in the International Space Station, and spoke of her successful efforts to get the U.S. portion of the station designated as a national laboratory to attract non federal support for it. She asked Bowden how he would pursue international partners for the station. Bowden spoke of how the station now has a six-person crew, and the likely benefits of future research. He described the station as a bridge for travel beyond low earth orbit, of travel to Mars being a 20-year venture, and as a way to get people more involved. Garver spoke of the station as “a toehold to the universe.”
Bolden and Garver’s appearance before the committee came to a rather quick end when Rockefeller left to attend to other business. Nothing that occurred during this hearing detracted from Rockefeller’s opening comment to Bolden and Garver that “no question, you are the right people for the job.” Their confirmation by the full Senate should occur in the near future.