The reception NASA Administrator Charles Bolden received when testifying before the House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee this week was strikingly different from that given to OSTP Director John Holdren last month. While both described NASA’s proposed space policy in essentially the same terms, committee members were not as overtly hostile to the Administration’s plan to cancel the Constellation Program at Tuesday’s hearing.
None of the subcommittee’s members, who play an essential role in determining the space agency’s budget, are publically supporting the new plan. There appeared, however, to be a new willingness to consider the policy. Subcommittee chairman Alan Mollohan (D-WV), who was not able to attend most of the Holdren hearing because of a scheduling conflict, was at all of this Tuesday’s hearing. Mollohan’s opening words bear close reading for insight into his thinking:
"In this contemporary context, faced with the need to set the future direction of the human spaceflight program, the President has formulated a program that shifts from plowing ahead with development programs driven by a return to the moon to a focus on government development of new enabling technologies, with the eventual goal of landing astronauts on Mars. Exploration beyond low Earth orbit will be vigorous, but for a time it will be achieved through the use of robots. Commercial provision of astronaut transport to the Space Station is proposed, and the life of the Space Station is extended until at least 2020. At the same time, NASA’s programs in Earth and space science and aeronautics are strengthened, education programs are continued and the Kennedy launch complex is slated for modernization.
“So today, we find ourselves at another pivot point for the space program. Like Presidents Nixon and Reagan, President Obama is committing the nation to human spaceflight as a continuing endeavor, but this commitment is part of a balanced effort within a constrained budget. Frankly, many of us yearn for the Apollo-like vision of the 1960’s, but is that the approach that best serves our national interest? Mr. Administrator, there is much we need to learn about this major change in the direction of our space program.”
Bolden briefly described the FY 2011 request and the rationale for the new space policy. “I believe it is the right vision for NASA . . . a road map to even more historic achievements,” he said.
Mollohan asked Bolden a series of questions that allowed the Administrator to describe the details and rationale of the new policy, and how the previous and projected funding for the Constellation would not allow the new system to be flown on schedule, calling it an unsustainable path. To Mollohan’s concerns that abandoning the Constellation Program would waste taxpayers’ money, Bolden responded that “we have received incredible returns” that would be applied to a new system that would result in Americans returning to the moon in less time. When asked by Mollohan why the schedule could not be stretched out to fit the projected funding profile, Bolden said that was the reason why the space station’s cost had ballooned, and that he “could not in good conscience” recommend that strategy. Mollohan then asked Bolden two questions that got to the heart of the new space policy, and the opposition to it. When asked about the feasibility of using commercial vehicles for transportation to the space station, the moon, or Mars, Bolden swiftly replied, “my vehicles today are commercial vehicles,” explaining that private corporations build NASA’s rockets. The major difference, Bolden said, was acquisition. Where up until now NASA has purchased commercially-built space vehicles, it would lease them in the future. NASA employees would partner with commercial entities in the control of the space craft. Bolden predicted that the R&D approach in the new policy would lead to future vehicles that were more uniform, commenting that “everything is unique today.” Mollohan asked Bolden about NASA’s vision, with the Administrator replying “we are going to Mars – that is the destination.”
The chairman also asked Bolden a series of exacting questions about management and contract actions that NASA has taken regarding the Constellation Program, and if the agency is in compliance with FY 2010 appropriations language regarding changes to the program. This issue had been a contentious point in the Holdren hearing. Bolden assured Mollohan that he had consulted carefully with attorneys and NASA’s general counsel, which had concluded that the agency was “not in violation.”
Ranking Member Frank Wolf (R-VA) noted that few Members of Congress have embraced the proposed space policy, and asked about NASA’s goals. Bolden responded that the “primary goal is to put humans on Mars in the foreseeable future,”although he could not provide a time frame. The discussion turned to international competition. When asked by Wolf about China landing a manned mission on the moon, Bolden replied “we have won that race.” When a future astronaut lands on the moon they will find six American flags on the lunar surface, and might literally walk in the footsteps of American astronauts, he said. Bolden also told the subcommittee that future missions to the moon or Mars will have to be international efforts, as is the space station.
Wolf also asked about the employee implications of the new policy, with Bolden responding that it has been known since 2004 that the shuttle was going to be retired with a corresponding impact on the workforce. Wolf also asked about the decision making process leading to the new policy. Bolden replied that staff from NASA’s centers participated in the development of the FY 2011 request, as did senior headquarters staff, before the Administrator met with President Obama. While assuring Wolf that he would work with Congress, and that he was open to other ideas, Bolden also told Wolf, “there is no plan B.”
Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger (D-MD) was, as was also true at the Holden hearing, unenthusiastic about the new space policy. He contends that the change in policy occurred “way too quick,” and is quite concerned about the national security implications of developing a new space vehicle.
Rep. Peter Visclosky (D-IN) asked a series of questions about the development of launch capabilities. Bolden replied that it was his intention that a new system would be developed in the next ten years. Visclosky also asked if the cost of manned missions had delayed unmanned projects. Bolden said yes, and that the expense had been “sucking all of the air out of the room,” affecting science and aeronautics programs.
At last month’s hearing, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) had voiced his serious opposition to the new space policy. Bolden agreed with Culberson that space is “absolutely the high ground.” While also agreeing that NASA would work with Congress, Bolden repeated what he had told Wolf: “there is no plan B.” Culberson criticized the funding NASA received during the Bush Administration, and made clear that he was unhappy that Members of Congress had not been consulted before the Obama Administration decided to cancel the Constellation Program. Culberson is not convinced that leasing space craft is the right strategy, noting that the U.S. does not lease nuclear submarines or aircraft carriers.
Other questions from the subcommittee members dealt with workforce issues, the monetary and other challenges of developing a heavy lift vehicle, funding for planetary science, the supply of PU-238 for future missions, and Russian transportation to the space shuttle.
As the hearing concluded, an indication of perhaps how the dialogue has moved forward can be seen in the statements of Ranking Member Wolf. At the February hearing he told Director Holdren “I’m going to oppose what you are trying to do . . . I’m going to do everything I can to stop this.” At this week’s hearing he asked Bolden to meet with a group of individuals to determine “where do we go from here.” He spoke of a “spirit of reconciliation” and his desire to resolve issues. Bolden replied “we will find a solution to this problem.”