The possible cost of a human exploration mission to the moon and Mars,
and how it might affect other R&D programs within and outside of
NASA, were the focus of a February 12 hearing of the House Science Committee.
Although committee members have pressed NASA and the Administration
for a clear goal for the human space flight program, many remain unsure
about whether President Bush's vision, announced earlier this year,
is the right one at the right time. As the committee's ranking minority
member Bart Gordon (D-TN) noted, "this will not be an easy year
to start major new initiatives in the face of a growing deficit."
Committee chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) declared himself "open-minded."
OSTP Director John Marburger and NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe, sitting
at the witness table, explained that the program's incremental nature
made its total cost and schedule impossible to predict at this time.
Remarking that "NASA has had a mixed record on the credibility
of its budgeting,"Gordon pushed the witnesses repeatedly for a
cost estimate for the entire initiative. The chairman of the Space and
Aeronautics Subcommittee, Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) agreed that "the
question Mr. Gordon is asking is a very relevant question.... I think
that we do need specifics." O'Keefe's response: "There is
no way to put a price tag on a program that is in definition."
A presidentially-appointed commission is currently working to develop
an implementation plan for the initiative (see FYI
About half a dozen committee members echoed Gordon's concerns that
"NASA's other missions not be cannibalized." Rohrabacher urged
NASA to look for savings through commercialization whenever possible,
so that science programs would not have to be cut. He added that he
would expect the initiative to cannibalize other programs - "that's
called setting priorities" - but he warned that all involved had
to make decisions based on a clear understanding of what the priorities
Marburger said much of the $11 billion within NASA to be shifted to
the exploration initiative would come from discontinuing the launch
technologies program, reprioritizing space station research, and phasing
out the shuttle. "Space science continues to be robust," he
reported: NASA's outer planet missions and Sun-Earth connections program
remain priorities, a new generation of space observatories is planned,
and Solar Terrestrial Probes, although stretched out, would continue.
He also voiced support for the continuation of NASA's aeronautics R&D
and for Earth science, which he said would remain "the largest
contributor to the interagency climate change science program."
Marburger later added that "the way the [President's] vision is
structured is good for science." The step-by-step framework of
doing missions with no specific timeframe, as the money was available
and the technologies ready, he said, "actually reduces the risk
of invading science budgets in the future."
To questions about the intention to cancel the last Hubble Space Telescope
servicing mission (currently under review), Marburger explained that
with the safety recommendations made by the Columbia Accident Investigation
Board, the approaching end of Hubble's design life, and the increasing
capabilities of adaptive optics, "the risk-benefit equation has
been altered." He mentioned, though, that other options to extend
Hubble's life besides a servicing mission could be explored. In other
questioning, O'Keefe replied that if the human physiology and long-duration
human space flight research now planned for the space station was not
completed by the target date of 2016, "we'll have to continue that
activity beyond that point." Asked what he thought would be the
greatest uncertainties in estimating the cost, O'Keefe said development
of the necessary power generation and propulsion capabilities.
Some members were supportive of the President's vision, like Tom Feeney
(R-FL), who stated, "we can pick it apart with 535 different views
of what the optimal role of America ought to be in space, [but] I do
believe that this vision...is focused, I think it is bold, it's affordable."
Others were reserving judgment until more information was available.
Boehlert predicted a "lengthy and spirited debate...which could
easily take us to the end of this calendar year." In closing, he
said that this first in a series of hearings was "not the beginning
of the end; this is the end of the beginning."