As the Columbia Accident Investigation Board continues to seek answers
to the shuttle tragedy, Congress must proceed with consideration of
NASA's FY 2004 budget. On February 27, the House Science Committee heard
from NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe on the agency's budget request
and how the grounding of the shuttle fleet is impacting the international
space station. Committee members raised questions about the Earth Science
budget, cuts to aeronautics R&D and tech transfer programs, proposals
for a number of new initiatives, and progress on a vehicle to complement
or replace the shuttle.
There is no indication yet of when the investigation board will complete
its work and the shuttle fleet will return to operation. Committee Chairman
Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), who had previously voiced concern over the
independence of the accident investigation board, expressed himself
"more convinced than ever that the Columbia Accident Investigation
Board has the independence and resources it needs." However, others
were not yet satisfied. Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN) urged that the board
be appointed as a presidential commission, and Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee
called for greater diversity on the board. Members repeatedly questioned
whether, during the Columbia flight, engineers' concerns were addressed
at the appropriate level within NASA. O'Keefe thought so, but added,
"Was that a judgment call that was in error? We'll find out."
O'Keefe reported that, the previous day, the space station international
partners had reached agreement on a plan to use the Russian Soyuz to
bring back the three-person station crew in April or May, and replace
them with a two-person crew. Additional flights of the unmanned Progress
resupply vehicle would be planned over the next two years. Previous
hearing testimony, Boehlert noted, indicated that the station needed
more than two crew members just to maintain operations. NASA and its
international partners have concluded that a two-member crew can continue
operations and conduct some science, O'Keefe replied, and can use the
Soyuz as an escape vehicle if needed. The objective, he said, is to
keep the station operating and continue conducting research, so that
assembly can be continued at the earliest opportunity.
O'Keee called the $15.5 billion FY 2004 request a "responsible"
budget that incorporates full-cost accounting, pursues transformational
technologies that will "open new pathways," and includes exciting
initiatives aligned with NASA's new Strategic Plan (available in pdf
format at www.nasa.gov/about/budget/content/strategi.pdf).
He described nine specific new opportunities in the request: initiatives
in human research; optical communications; climate change research;
aviation security; national airspace system transformation augmentation;
quiet aircraft technology acceleration; education; several "Einstein"
observatories; and Project Prometheus, a mission to Jupiter's icy moons
that will use nuclear power and propulsion technologies. He said the
request also supports space station assembly to the U.S. core configuration,
upon the shuttle's return to flight, so the station could be built out
to a configuration dictated by the research objectives. He added that
NASA plans to proceed with establishment of a non-governmental organization
to prioritize those research objectives.
Remarking that the change to full-cost accounting made comparison with
the FY 2003 appropriation difficult, Boehlert asked NASA for a conversion
of the final FY 2003 numbers to enable "meaningful comparisons."
Questioning NASA's plans for several "expensive new missions,"
Ranking Minority Member Ralph Hall (D-TX) commented, "A year after
OMB cancelled the $1 billion Europa Orbiter mission because it was too
expensive, NASA is now proposing to undertake a $4 billion mission to
Jupiter's icy moons. Two years after OMB deferred work on a $1.4 billion
U.S. Crew Return Vehicle for the International Space Station, NASA is
now proposing to spend what it estimates could be ten times as much
on an Orbital Space Plane."
Hall urged greater attention to crew survivability systems for the
shuttle. Many members inquired about the role and cost of the planned
Orbital Space Plane, and whether development could be accelerated with
additional funding. The plane is intended to complement the shuttle
by providing crew transfer capability, O'Keefe explained, and the shuttle
would continue to be used for its heavy-lift capacity while technologies
were developed for a next-generation launch vehicle. He hoped that a
single design would be selected within the next 12-18 months, but could
not speculate on the total cost at this time. The plan currently calls
for the Orbital Space Plane to be operational by 2010, but NASA is exploring
whether its development could be accelerated.
Several members questioned the value of human space flight and of recent
research performed aboard the shuttle and space station. O'Keefe, as
in past hearings, used the Hubble Space Telescope as the "most
instructive example" of how human involvement can complement unmanned
missions. He also referred to the role of space-based research in development
of a heart pump, and said that human research on the station could have
"rather dramatic" applications for those on Earth.
Indicating his interest in doubling the science budgets of NASA and
DOE, Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-MI) thanked O'Keefe for seeking increased funding
for NASA science programs. Boehlert expressed concerns about whether
"Earth Science is getting its due," and called it a critical
NASA mission "of enormous scientific utility." Committee members
were also concerned about the aging of the NASA S&T workforce and
the agency's difficulties in hiring. Boehlert testified to the Senate
Governmental Affairs Committee on March 6 about this issue, and has
reintroduced legislation (H.R. 1085) that would give NASA enhanced flexibility
and authority in recruiting and retaining scientists and engineers.
While the tone of the hearing was generally positive toward NASA programs,
the House Science Committee, as an authorizing committee, does not have
control of NASA's purse strings. Future hearings on the agency's FY
2004 budget will be held by VA/HUD appropriators in the House and Senate,
who will draft the funding legislation for NASA and other programs under