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FYI Number 59: May 14, 2002

Wyden to Draft NASA Reauthorization Bill

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 for a 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 agencies."

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, and 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, he 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 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."

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

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