Senator Nelson on NASA’s FY 2011 Budget Request

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Publication date: 
18 February 2010

“I can tell you other Members on both sides of the aisle are not pleased with the way the President's message about the future of human spaceflight has been received.” - Senator Bill Nelson

One of the most dramatic changes in the Administration’s FY 2011 budget request for R&D agencies is the proposed cancellation of NASA’s Constellation Program.  This has been a controversial decision on Capitol Hill, with Democratic and Republican Members questioning the proposed termination of funding for a new heavy-lift rocket and an astronaut capsule.   Informing the Administration’s decision was last fall’s report of the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, chaired by Norman Augustine, that concluded projected NASA budgets fall short of what the agency needs to conduct a viable exploration program beyond low-Earth orbit.

A prominent voice on Capitol Hill about the future of NASA is that of Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), a long-time supporter of the agency who was a Payload Specialist on a 1986 shuttle flight.  Nelson has called on President Obama to set NASA’s priorities and to “articulate a vision” for the human space flight program.

A February 9 speech by Nelson on the Senate floor provides some of the first congressional reaction to the FY 2011 NASA request.  Nelson praises aspects of the agency’s proposed new approach, but faults the Administration for the presentation of the budget request as leading to the perception that it wants to kill the human space flight program.  The full text of the senator’s remarks, as they appeared in the Congressional Record, follow:

“The President of the United States has come forth with a budget for the future of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. I can tell you that, among the aerospace community, it has not been well received. The perception is that when the President's proposed budget is to cancel the Constellation Program, which was the program from the previous administration that was to take us to the Moon by 2020 - a position, by the way, that then-candidate Senator Obama had embraced - it has not been well received because the perception is that it is killing the manned space program for the United States. That perception is not entirely true, but we live in a world here in the government where we have to set policy and flesh out that policy with authorization and then appropriations for that policy. We live in a world where perception often governs instead of the actual substance.

“It is my hope, as we have a hearing in our Science and Space Subcommittee of the Commerce Committee, which I have the privilege of chairing, that we can start to separate the perception from the substance. What the President has proposed actually has some very good things. In the first place, this ridiculous idea from the previous administration that we were going to shut down the International Space Station in 2015, when, in fact, it hasn't even been completed--as a matter of fact, the mission that took off, I guess it was last night, that has the last major component to go up to complete the International Space Station, and then the remaining four flights of the space shuttle will take up additional experiments and equipment, and then the station will be fully ready for business.

“The idea from the previous administration that we were only going to have it until 2015, of course, was ridiculous. The Obama administration has come out and said we are going to extend it until 2020. That is a good thing. That is the right thing.

“The administration also has said NASA is one of the few civilian agencies it is recommending, to the Congress, get additional funding, and it is no small amount. It is an additional $6 billion the President is recommending over the next 5 years. That is substantial, given the fact that the NASA budget is a very small budget compared to the rest of the Federal agencies. However, that amount is only half of what was recommended by the Obama-appointed blue ribbon panel, called the Norman Augustine Commission, looking at the future of spaceflight – only half but it is substantial. I should note that is a step in the right direction.

“The Obama administration has also recommended a substantial increase in research and development and particularly with regard to a heavy-lift vehicle that will change NASA's mission from just going to and from low-Earth orbit, where we have done all our work in the last three decades with the space shuttle – to and from low-Earth orbit, either to the space station or certain projects such as the Hubble space telescope, which has been miraculous, and the refurbishing missions that have kept that space telescope alive and has opened our understanding and knowledge of the heavens and is peering back into the beginning of time. That has been extraordinary.

“The President has said: Let's get out of low-Earth orbit and explore the heavens. That is all a good thing. But here is where the President, in his rollout of his recommended budget, made the mistake and has given the perception that he has killed the manned space program. He just said we are going to cancel Constellation. They did not explain: But we have to do an aggressive effort toward building the new heavy-lift vehicle to take us out into the heavens. They put all their eggs in the basket to say we are going to let these commercial companies develop rockets that are going to take us to and from the space station, first with cargo, and then we are going to human rate them for human crews.

“But the first commercial rocket, Space X, is supposed to have flown six times by now. They have not flown that Falcon 9 rocket yet. They are saying they are going to fly it this spring. Let's hope they do, and let's hope it is successful.

“But what if it isn't? There is another one, a much smaller rocket called Orbital Sciences. They want to take cargo. Ultimately, they would like to take humans. But they have not gotten off the ground with the first test rocket.

“For us, where safety ought to be primacy -- and one of the key fundamentals for the Constellation Program was to create a rocket and a follow-on heavy-lift rocket that was going to increase, by a factor of 10, the safety for astronauts because the space shuttle has 1,500 parts, any one of which, if it malfunctions, that is it. It is tube city. It is a catastrophic loss.

“The idea is to have a rocket that builds in a lot more safety for the humans going to and from the space station and ultimately a heavy-lift rocket that gets us out of low-Earth orbit.

“What I think the President needs to do, he has to repair the image because the perception is he has killed the manned space program. He does not want to do that. I know the President. The Presiding Officer knows the President. He is a great space aficionado. But the perception is there, and it has to be corrected.

“The first thing he should do is set a goal. Presidents are the only ones who can lead America's space program. A Senate committee cannot do it. The Administrator of NASA cannot do it. Only Presidents can set the vision and the goal, and that goal ought to be what we all know is where we want to go and that is to the planet Mars.

“If you think I am reaching too far, no less than one of the most critical editorial pages of NASA in America this morning endorsed the goal of going to Mars. That is the New York Times editorial page. This is what a bunch of us have been saying for years: The goal is Mars. We have to develop the technology, the vehicles, the safety systems, the life support systems to get there. But the President needs to set the goal and set the vision that this is where we are going.

“If the President would do this, and then if he would turn the architecture over to his science adviser and to his Administrator of NASA and that great team, and if they would continue with the testing of the rocket that has already flown successfully, that will be a precursor to building the heavy-lift vehicle--if they will continue that testing, then the President will be well on the way of doing what he wants to do, which is for America to be the leader in space exploration and combined with other countries, where it is appropriate, in international exploration, as we have on the International Space Station.

“I urge the White House to start listening to some of their most vigorous supporters in the Congress. I can tell you other Members on both sides of the aisle are not pleased with the way the President's message about the future of human spaceflight has been received. If we can work together, we can get the perception of our space exploration back on track.”

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