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FYI Number 54: May 3, 2002

Senate Appropriators Warmly Welcome O'Keefe

Last November, in his role as Deputy Director of OMB, Sean O'Keefe testified to a congressional committee that achieving the stripped-down "core complete" configuration of the International Space Station would be a worthwhile goal even if the project goes no further. On Wednesday, after four months as the new Administrator of NASA, O'Keefe said it is "my fondest hope that we do not stop there." While he has by no means changed his intention of finishing the core complete station before determining whether to go beyond that stage, in recent appearances he has seemed to place greater importance on how much research the orbiting laboratory can ultimately perform.

As expected, the space station's woes were the main subject of discussion at a friendly May 1 hearing of the Senate Appropriations VA/HUD Subcommittee on NASA's FY 2003 budget. Unlike a somewhat contentious House hearing several weeks ago, O'Keefe, a former Senate Appropriations Committee staff member, was warmly welcomed by the subcommittee. Chairwoman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), a strong advocate of space and Earth science in general, and Maryland's Goddard Space Flight Center in particular, also concentrated on O'Keefe's plans for NASA science programs. Subcommittee members raised questions about space shuttle safety, upgrades, and possible privatization, and, of course, the research capability of the space station. This project, which was "touted as the crown jewel of NASA, now appears to be a rather expensive piece of costume jewelry," commented Ranking Republican Christopher Bond (R-MO).

O'Keefe explained that his approach to NASA's FY 2003 budget is to focus on enabling technologies to help the agency overcome technological challenges "that limit our ability to explore." He also emphasized leveraging NASA's investment in new technologies; the space agency will work with DOE on its new nuclear systems initiative to improve propulsion and power generating capability, and with the Air Force on developing a new Space Launch vehicle.

Regarding the space station, O'Keefe reiterated that NASA is focusing its efforts right now on successfully finishing the three-person core complete configuration and working to "infuse a sense of management discipline" to the program. NASA has planned an aggressive assembly schedule that would achieve core complete early in 2004. A scientific task force (see FYI #48) is currently reviewing and prioritizing the many research objectives that have been put forth for the station. If the science prioritization indicates that a larger crew is warranted, O'Keefe said, then decisions could be made within the next year or two about allocating funds to develop necessary components such as a habitation module and crew return vehicle. But if the assembly schedule for core complete is not met, O'Keefe was emphatic that "then there is no discussion beyond" that point; "that is the end state." "That sounds like it makes a lot of sense to me," Bond said; "I hope it works."

Members were supportive of NASA's plans to develop new nuclear power and propulsion technologies, although Mikulski warned O'Keefe not to ignore concerns that might be raised by environmental groups. She also questioned O'Keefe's cancellation of the Pluto mission, noting that the opportunity for such a mission would not come again for another 200 years. O'Keefe said he was awaiting a National Academy of Sciences study ranking space exploration goals, and explained that while current propulsion methods relied on a "gravitational slingshot off Jupiter," NASA's nuclear propulsion initiative would provide "leap-ahead" technologies, facilitating accomplishment of the mission objectives.

Mikulski also urged NASA to look at contingency plans to extend the life of the Hubble Space Telescope beyond 2010 in case the Next Generation Space Telescope project was delayed; O'Keefe reported he was beginning to explore such possibilities. Noting that NASA's Earth Science budget was reportedly "in limbo" awaiting the results of an Administration review of its global climate change programs, Mikulski cautioned that "Administration reviews can take forever." O'Keefe replied that the missions in the pipeline were continuing to go forward, and the review was "not necessarily holding up or driving what we're doing;" the Earth Science program was "as aggressive as we think necessary for the coming year." Sen. Larry Craig (R-ID) remarked that funding for the physical sciences in general had "languished" in recent years, and hoped that Congress would rectify this for NASA and other federal agencies.

There is still uncertainty about the budget figures that appropriators will be working with this year and how allocations will be made to each subcommittee. Mikulski was unsure "when we're going to get our allocation," but expected her subcommittee to mark up its bill in June. She expressed hope that by then, the subcommittee would have the results of many of the studies and evaluations mentioned by O'Keefe, to help inform its deliberations.

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

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