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."
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