Members of the House Science Committee had many more questions than
NASA officials had answers for during the first of a series of hearings
that will lead to a reauthorization bill for the space agency. While
support remains high for the agency, there were questions from both
sides of the aisle about the direction the Bush Administration has set
"I want to do an authorization bill because I think it's critical
that Congress have a full and open debate on the president's vision
for space exploration and the future of NASA before NASA barrels ahead
with the program," said House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood
Boehlert (R-NY). While Congress provided planning money this year, it
"has never endorsed in fact, has never discussed the vision,"
he added. Ranking Minority Member Bart Gordon (D-TN) agreed, saying
"there has been little opportunity for congressional scrutiny,
and there has been no opportunity to develop a consensus on what Congress
or the American people thinks of this initiative."
The questions raised at this mid-February hearing were similar to those
addressed to OSTP Director John Marburger at a subsequent House Science,
State, Justice and Commerce Appropriations Subcommittee hearing (see
.) Both authorizers and appropriators contend Congress has not given
NASA's plan to return to the moon, and eventually send humans to Mars,
the close attention that it deserves.
The Science Committee hearing previewed many of the questions that
will be asked about NASA's vision in the coming months. Boehlert raised
many of them in his opening comments, asking about proposed space station
research, shuttle flights, the shuttle's replacement, nuclear propulsion,
and "what we might do when we get to the moon." He hastened
to add that he was not criticizing NASA for not being forthcoming, but
rather, "they can't provide answers that they don't have yet."
Gordon raised similar questions, "notably, what priority should
the president's exploration initiative have relative to NASA's other
important missions?" Other committee members raised similar concerns.
There was disagreement with NASA's decision not to send a crew to service
the Hubble Space Telescope. Other questions concerned how the agency
intends to set its future priorities, the emphasis on space science,
and NASA's plans to reduce its workforce.
The Science Committee's Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics (http://www.house.gov/science/committeeinfo/members/space/index.htm)
will be examining these and many other questions in coming weeks. The
subcommittee's chairman, Ken Calvert (R-CA) said "I strongly support"
the president's "exciting and bold exploration vision." Calvert
announced plans to hold hearings on NASA's roles, missions and infrastructure.
He stated, "I want to ensure that we get to work early to pass
an authorization bill for NASA. We haven't passed one since 2000; I
think it's important we not turn our responsibilities over to the appropriators
as we enter a new era of space exploration." The subcommittee's
Ranking Minority Member, Mark Udall (D-CO) spoke about whether scientific
and aeronautical research would have to be curtailed in favor of exploration.
He said it is "a false choice, we should be able to do both."
The House Science Committee, its Senate counterpart, and the appropriators
will spend the next few months seeing if it will be possible to do both
during a year when money is very tight.