House and Senate Appropriations Hearings on NASA While there was concern, and at times criticism, about NASA during two recent appropriations hearings, NASA Administrator Dan Goldin accomplished what he has been able to do so many times before that of maintaining support for the space agency. Public hearings on NASA by the House and Senate VA, HUD, and Independent Agencies appropriations subcommittees are complete; the next stop is the House mark up of the FY 2001 funding bill on May 23.
Recent losses of Mars missions have raised questions about Goldin's trademark "faster, better, cheaper" philosophy. Russia's decision to reoccupy Mir, while straining to meet its obligations to the International Space Station, cast new doubt on the troubled partnership. And the grounding of the US space shuttle fleet for a significant amount of time last year did not help the situation.
The subcommittee chairmen have their concerns. At the April 6 House hearing, chairman James Walsh (R-NY) told Goldin that the past year "has been very difficult for the space agency and the American taxpayer." He described his "serious doubts" about the Russians, and said that he would not allow them to hold the station program "hostage indefinitely." Walsh charged that NASA ignored the fundamentals in the Mars program, and told Goldin that NASA "cannot claim the Mars program is 'better.'" Senate chairman Christopher Bond (R-MO), on April 13, decried the escalating cost of the space station, and described it as "a poster child of bad government and poor decision making." He said he was "very disturbed" about risks to the shuttle fleet, and said of the Mars failures, "these losses could have been easily avoided."
Yet it would be a mistake to conclude that the chairmen and members of the two appropriations subcommittees have soured on NASA. Goldin has been saying for years that NASA would fail in some of its missions, and so these disappointing outcomes have been, to some degree, expected. In addition, his straightforward statements to the two subcommittees that he accepts responsibility, saying to Walsh, "I'm at fault we didn't know the boundary," and to Bond, "I, Dan Goldin, pushed too hard," helped to reduce criticism. Subcommittee members on both sides seemed to concur that while the boundaries of "faster, cheaper, better" may have been stretched too far, that the basic approach remains sound.
Goldin also had an effective strategy in discussing the FY 2001 request. As opposed to laying the blame for the failed missions on funding problems, he declared, "I believe we should not throw money at these challenges" and that the problems were "not a license to turn on the funding spigot." He told Walsh that he would not be asking for "an additional nickel" above the administration's request unless there was an overwhelming and compelling need for more money. While later saying that NASA might need more funding, Goldin's strategy of not asking for more money over the request laid the foundation for his main message: that the FY 2001 request must be fully funded. On his end, Walsh, in his opening remarks, spoke of either adding significant new money to the NASA request or canceling some projects. Bond, in his opening, said "Despite the rosy optimism of some, we have a number of hard funding decisions to make," citing NASA's "significant increase," VA medical care, and HUD programs.
Committee members are displeased with Russia's efforts in the space station program, Bond speaking of "fears that our Russian partners are not going to shoulder their fair share and meet their commitments." Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) told Goldin that "NASA must remain vigilant in dealing with the Russians." In response to many questions that were asked about Russia, Goldin was blunt in expressing his frustration. Asked about Russia's plans for Mir, he said, "I don't know what they intend to do." "I am highly frustrated . . . we are very concerned about their emphasis on Mir." In describing Russia's role in providing station components, Goldin told Members, "a deal is a deal is a deal." "You must pay the bill," he later said. A major milestone is the Russian delivery of the Service Module, which is two years late. If launched in mid-July, as is now scheduled, Goldin declared, "we will be in a much better position."
A range of other issues were discussed by committee members. Mikulski praised NASA's space science work, lauding the "Living With A Star" initiative which will study the sun. She gave high marks to the administration's nanotechnology initiative. She expressed worry about a proposed $100 million cut in earth science funding by 2005. About this cut, Goldin assured Mikulski that "we needed to take a pause," saying that the future program would be robust. Mikulski was not entirely satisfied, replying "it's not a pause that refreshes." Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL) wanted to know if space propulsion research funding was "sufficient," Goldin telling him that up until this year "it has been very thin."
Goldin told both subcommittees, in looking at NASA's record, that "this is a world-class performance by any reasonable standard." While committee hearings only present the public side of congressional thinking, the reactions of the appropriators suggest that few would take great issue with him.
Richard M. Jones