After last year's revelations that cost overruns on the
International Space Station (ISS) could reach $4.8 billion, and
the subsequent policy decision to focus current station resources
on achieving the basic "US Core Complete" configuration, the
station's capacity for research has been the main theme of many
NASA hearings. This was the case on April 17, when members of
the House Appropriations VA/HUD Subcommittee grilled new NASA
Administrator Sean O'Keefe on this issue. Last year O'Keefe, as
Deputy Director of OMB, was a key proponent of the policy to
focus on the cost, engineering and management issues for reaching
core complete, and postponing for a time any decision to add back
such elements as the crew return vehicle (CRV), habitation and
propulsion modules, and centrifuge.
Subcommittee Chairman James Walsh (R-NY) expressed disappointment
in NASA's budget request of $15.1 billion, and Ranking Democrat
Alan Mollohan (D-WV) noted that the one percent increase was less
than the expected rate of inflation. He called the request
"scary in light of meeting NASA's overall mission." O'Keefe
testified that the space agency had to be selective and take on
missions that "only NASA can perform." He reported that NASA
about halfway to assembly of the core complete station, and that
work was ongoing to address engineering challenges, develop
firmer cost estimates, and institute management reforms for that
configuration. Completion is expected in early 2004, if every
assembly flight between now and then is successful. Mollohan
pointed out that, except for one Hubble Space Telescope servicing
mission, every shuttle flight through January 2004 is dedicated
to space station assembly.
Walsh questioned O'Keefe about a recently-established scientific task
force to prioritize the research goals of the station and the Office
of Biological and Physical Research (OBPR), and determine how they could
best be met within available resources. O'Keefe responded that the panel,
called the Research Maximization and Prioritization Task Force (REMAP),
had been asked to look at the "vast array of scientific objectives"
for the station, with emphasis on those that require the unique research
environment of the ISS, and those that would provide "breakthrough
opportunities." He stressed that he had advised the task force
not to be confined by assumptions about the final configuration or resource
availability. (Task force documents call on it to address science priorities
"within the available resources in the President's FY 2003 Budget
for OBPR," and consider the research content for "the ISS
US Core Complete configuration." The task force is also directed
to assess the extent to which various research content options allow
"for a viable evolution of the research strategy, given the possibility
of research-driven enhancement to the ISS beyond US Core Complete.")
The panel's recommendations are due in June.
Rep. Tom DeLay (R-TX) criticized the agency's FY 2003 budget request
and O'Keefe's plans for space exploration as "timid and anaemic,"
and excoriated him for using funds the committee had designated last
year for development of a CRV, to instead close out CRV development.
O'Keefe responded that he wanted to leverage resources by developing
a multipurpose vehicle that could be used for other missions as well.
DeLay decried what he called a "blatant disregard" for congressional
intent, as well as "limited vision" and "insufficient
funding" for space flight. Other members in addition to DeLay urged
O'Keefe to invest funding at this time for development of a CRV and
other elements beyond the core complete version. O'Keefe would not speculate
on what might come out of the task force's review, but said development
funding for additional elements could be included in the FY 2004 request.
Little time was spent discussing other NASA science programs.
Walsh noted that the request cancelled two outer planetary
missions and put a number of Earth science missions "on hold"
while the Administration's climate change programs were reviewed.
Mollohan asked what programs NASA had to drop to meet its FY 2003
request. "Some of the longer-term, farther-reach" exploration
missions like the Pluto-Kuiper Belt mission, O'Keefe said, but
added that the Pluto program was halted not for lack of funds but
because the research objectives could be better met by focusing
now on propulsion technologies. The program as currently
envisioned would take 8-10 years to achieve 4-6 weeks of
research, he said; that is why he has proposed a nuclear
propulsion initiative to address these limitations.
Reps. Joe Knollenberg (R-MI) and Virgil Goode (I-VA) had concerns
about recent reports of an asteroid passing near the Earth, and
were informed that NASA has an ongoing program to catalog
kilometer-sized asteroids that might cross the Earth's path.
Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA) inquired whether NASA had a way to
"recapture" some of the benefits of technologies it transferred
to the private sector. O'Keefe replied that it was complicated
to trace technologies back to the original R&D performed by NASA,
and that the agency had not yet settled on an appropriate
mechanism to do so. Asked by Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-NJ)
about the civilian space agency's cooperation with DOD, O'Keefe
said there was a need to leverage resources and not duplicate
Clearly the subcommittee is concerned about the research capacity
of the space station and its ability to accommodate sufficient
crew to perform the research. As they prepare their
appropriations bill, it is likely that members will include
report language expressing the subcommittee's opinion on
development of a CRV and other elements beyond the core complete