Senators on the Commerce Science, Technology and Space
Subcommittee urged NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe to "think big"
at a May 8 hearing and did not voice any qualms about the costs
of doing so. Subcommittee members advocated what O'Keefe
referred to as "lofty objectives" for the space agency. There
was agreement that NASA must get its financial house in order and
rebuild congressional confidence, but members condemned the
basically flat funding that NASA has seen in recent years.
"We've got to by all means maintain NASA at its full strength,"
Commerce Committee Chairman Ernest Hollings (D-SC) asserted.
Subcommittee Chairman Ron Wyden (D-OR), who will soon be drafting
an authorization bill for the agency, cautioned that "Congress
isn't going to throw good money after bad." But he spoke with
enthusiasm of regaining "the glory of the past," and called
manned mission to Mars. Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) acknowledged
that while Congress tends to be critical of NASA, it is an agency
"that perhaps embraces, by its very nature, more risk than other
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) remarked that NASA's recent budgets,
including the FY 2003 request, have not kept pace with inflation.
The agency cannot continue, he said, "trying to put 10 pounds of
potatoes in a 5-pound potato sack." To provide some budgetary
relief, he promised to try to insert language in the DOD
authorization bill to encourage Defense Department cooperation
and support of NASA's Space Launch Initiative.
The hearing was a bipartisan, friendly affair. Wyden and Ranking
Republican George Allen (R-VA) agreed that NASA's primary focus
has to be on science. "Current scientific projects can't be
allowed to fall by the wayside," Wyden said. Both members had
concerns that, as Allen noted, funding for aviation research has
fallen by over 50 percent since 1987. The adequacy of NASA's
support for aeronautics R&D is a topic that has repeatedly arisen
in recent NASA hearings.
The foremost topic of concern at every hearing in which O'Keefe
has appeared as NASA Administrator has been the International
Space Station. Congress wants to work with NASA, Wyden said, "to
set ambitious criteria" for research on the space station. Sen.
Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) criticized recent cuts to the
station's budget. As in other hearings, much of the questioning
revolved around when NASA might make a decision about building
out the station beyond the "core complete" configuration,
whether holding off on development of additional elements now
might cause added cost and delay in the future. If the June
report of the task force on prioritization of research objectives
indicates a need for an expanded configuration, O'Keefe said,
discussions would start this summer about what the ultimate
configuration should be, how much it would cost, and whether it
would be worth the time and effort. But he reiterated that,
unless assembly of the core configuration is successfully
achieved by early 2004, any discussion of further enhancements
"is purely academic."
The senators were pleased with O'Keefe's emphasis on education.
In addition to reestablishing the "Educator in Space" program,
intends to pull together NASA's existing education and outreach
programs in a more coherent way, and to work with the Department
of Education to build on those programs.
Asked by Wyden when NASA might initiate a manned mission to Mars,
O'Keefe said that NASA needs to overcome technological
limitations on space travel and learn more about the long-term
effects of space radiation. "If we...meet these two challenges,"
O'Keefe responded, "then the answer to your question is: let's
pick a date."
Wyden promised to draft a reauthorization bill as soon as
possible. He encouraged O'Keefe to "get the accounting done, and
think big. I think you're up to it."