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FYI Number 47: April 19, 2002

Appropriators Press NASA Administrator on ISS Research Capacity

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 was 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 efforts.

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 configuration.

Audrey T. Leath
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
(301) 209-3094

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