Key Congressional Hearings on FY 2013 NASA Budget Request

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Publication date: 
13 April 2012

As  she concluded an important appropriations hearing on the FY 2013 NASA budget  request, Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Barbara  Mikulski (D-MD) explained that she anticipates marking up the subcommittee’s  bill “sometime in mid- to late April.”   Mikulski’s subcommittee held the last of four House and Senate  authorization and appropriations hearings last month, setting the stage for  what will likely be a difficult process of weighing competing interests as NASA’s  FY 2013 budget is developed.

“I can’t pull a rabbit out of the hat.  I don‘t have a rabbit and I don’t have a  hat.”  While Mikulski was talking to NASA  Administrator Charles Bolden about keeping the James Webb Space Telescope on  schedule, her words can be applied more broadly to the funding problems that  NASA encountered in developing its budget request, and which will now confront  the appropriators as they write an FY 2013 bill.  As has been true for so many appropriations  cycles, NASA and its congressional supporters simply do not have enough funding  for all the current and future programs and projects in the agency’s portfolio.  Under the request, total agency funding would  be cut by 0.3 percent.

Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) was complimentary about  NASA’s accomplishments in his opening comments of an early March hearing of the  Senate, Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.  He described the FY 2013 request as  “relatively good as most of the government agencies got whacked.” The committee’s Ranking Member, Kay Bailey  Hutchison (R-TX) was far more measured in her opening remarks, voicing great  concern about significantly higher funding for the commercial crew program and  less money than she feels is needed for the Space Launch System and a crew  capsule.  Charging that “actions don’t  seem to be following the words of the agreement” crafted by Congress and the  Obama Administration that resulted in the latest version of the NASA  authorization bill, Hutchison’s concerns were repeated in other hearings. 

“I continue to be frustrated that the Space Launch  System and Orion crew capsule are not being developed quickly enough” said  House Science, Space, and Technology Committee Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) when  his committee reviewed the request.  He  also expressed concern about the viability of the commercial crew program and  market.  Committee Ranking Member Eddie  Bernice Johnson (D-TX) told Bolden that she had many unanswered questions about  the request and its priorities.

Priority-setting was the focus of questions about  NASA’s science program request, and nowhere was this more evident than when the  House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee reviewed the  request.  Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) said  “the budget proposal is a disaster for our leadership in space,” heavily  criticizing the Administration’s request to reduce science funding by 3.2  percent, and planetary science by $309.1 million.  He charged that the request is “cannibalizing  the Mars program” necessitating the Administration’s decision to back away from  a flagship joint European program to explore the planet.  Schiff and Bolden had an almost seventeen  minute exchange about the status of the Mars program, with Bolden concluding  his remarks by saying “we have got to figure out how we prioritize our science  budget so we can accomplish as many of those goals as possible,” later  admitting “we don’t have the program in place that I would like to have because  I don’t have endless money.”  Rep. John  Culberson (R-TX) said he “could not agree more strongly with the comments” by  Schiff, telling Bolden “there’s no way that you can say the planetary program  can survive a cut of 21 percent.” He  called NASA’s exploration plan “visionless.”

It was during last year’s appropriations cycle that  House appropriators decided to terminate the James Webb Space Telescope  Program.  There was no discussion about  doing that this year, but much interest in management systems that have been  implemented to monitor its cost and schedule.    House appropriations subcommittee Chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA) sought and  received assurances from Bolden that the Administration’s replanning effort for  the telescope was the right decision to make and that its cost estimate is  robust.  The subcommittee’s Ranking Member  Chaka Fattah (D-PA) wanted to know about other astrophysics missions. 

Senator Mikulski pressed Bolden about a number of  space science programs.  In her opening  remarks she stated:

“For science, this budget will keep NASA near-term launches  on track. This is good news [for] . . . important science missions to look at  our solar system, understand the sun and protect our planet.  I'm troubled that the budget does not invest  adequately in future mission -- the highest science priorities that are  identified by the National Academies in their decadal surveys.  We're concerned about the cuts in planetary  science, mission to planet Earth, dark energy and heliophysics.”

In a later exchange with Bolden, Mikulski said the  following:

“I think as you've heard from Members here we're  each interested where NASA and through our appropriations process and authorizing  is making a significant investment in . . . [a] really big project with really  big bucks behind it for which there is no margin for error or cost overruns and  so on. 

“Last year this subcommittee took a major step with  a bipartisan concurrence of everyone to make sure we put James Webb [Space  Telescope] on track. This is after we had asked for a significant management  review because we were concerned two years ago that James Webb was off track,  off budget, and we were concerned that it was going to be cancelled because of  -- not because of the technology dysfunction, but because of management  dysfunction.  So last year we put in a  significant amount or money. And this year the budget request is for $628  million to keep it on track for launch by 2018.   My question to you is, is the James Webb telescope on track and how do  we know it to be so?”

In reply, Bolden said “I’ve very confident that James  Webb is on track,” adding that it will launch in 2018. 

The outlook for large flagship missions, and smaller  missions was the focus of a later exchange between Mikulski and Bolden.  Mikulski asked “So right now the scientific  community is concerned about where are we heading with small- and medium-sized  and large science missions in the future.   Based on the National Academy of Sciences . . . what is in this  appropriations request that raise the groundwork for future recommendations and  things like dark energy, astrophysics, heliophysics, Earth science or, are we  in such an age of frugality that we aren't going to make those investments?”

Bolden replied: “Senator, we are going to continue to make those investments. You know,  people talk about flagship missions. Flagships are . . . [of] such importance  to science they answer the most challenging questions. And NASA has not given  up on flagship missions.” He cited the  James Webb Space Telescope, the Mars science laboratory Curiosity, and the  Space Launch System and Multi-purpose Crew Vehicle as examples of ongoing  flagship missions.  In answer to a  follow-on question about smaller missions, he mentioned the Juno and GRAIL  lunar missions and the Mars MAVEN mission.   In discussing all of these missions, Bolden acknowledged previous cost  overruns for the Webb Telescope and said “We are doing things differently than  the way we used to do it. We have to deliver. We know that. . . .or otherwise  we perish.”

Another issue of concern regarding NASA’s science programs  is deep space exploration.  During the  House appropriations subcommittee hearing, Bolden was asked about the agency’s  request for Pu-238, and whether there will be sufficient supplies of it for  future missions.  He replied “I think we  have adequately funded our pushing toward start up again of plutonium  production that would take care of missions that we, NASA, envision will be doing  in the foreseeable future . . . .”

When talking about the budget process, a common  phrase is “the president proposes, the Congress disposes.”  Attention now turns to congressional  appropriators and authorizers who will start crafting the FY 2013 appropriation  for NASA at a time when demands on the agency and the missions it supports are  high and when fiscal constraints are very stringent.

Note:  Selections  are from a transcript prepared by and used with the permission of CQ Roll Call.

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