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.