Only one month after Michael Griffin traveled to Capitol Hill for his
Senate confirmation hearing, he was back as the new Administrator of
NASA to testify on the agency's FY 2006 budget request. Griffin was
the sole witness at this first hearing of the newly-established Senate
Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee, chaired by Richard
This was a good hearing for Administrator Griffin, and more broadly,
the larger space community. Praised for his academic credentials as
well as his many years at NASA, Griffin's low-key, but straight-forward
approach quickly established a good relationship with Shelby, Ranking
Member Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman
Thad Cochran (R-MS) and Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX). While the senators
sat on one side of podium and Griffin on the other, it was very evident
that they shared common ground: deep interest in seeing NASA complete
its projects and then realign its vision toward the Moon and Mars, as
well as realization that the agency is working with a very tight budget.
This was also the first hearing to observe the dynamics of the interaction
between Chairman Shelby and Ranking Member Mikulski. Ideologically,
the senators' composite liberal and conservative scores (as determined
by a policy publication) are almost mirror opposites. Despite these
differences, Mikulski took several minutes describing what she called
their long and congenial history, explaining that they both started
their congressional careers on the same House committee. She spoke of
their mutual work as Senate appropriators and described Shelby as "a
good friend," saying she looked forward to building upon their
relationship. Reflecting on Shelby's opening statement, Mikulski said
"those are also my priorities," and spoke of their "parallel
Shelby started the hearing by declaring "I am excited by the opportunities
that lay ahead with the [Moon/Mars] exploration vision at NASA. However,
there are fiscal realities that, like it or not, may affect the vision.
That is what we deal with on our Committee, and I believe it is one
of the difficulties you will face as the NASA administrator having
to balance NASA's limited resources with its programs and requirements."
These senators are going to play a very large role in determining NASA's
FY 2006 budget. So what was on their minds? One issue that was cited
repeatedly was the four-year gap between the decommissioning of the
space shuttle in 2010 and the first scheduled manned flight of a new
Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) in 2014. No one is happy about this "unacceptable"
gap, and the senators listened with keen interest to Griffin's intention
to release a plan in mid-July that would speed up CEV deployment. Despite
a strong suggestion from Hutchison that NASA might be forced to keep
flying the shuttle after 2010, Griffin reiterated that he did not want
to delay the decommissioning date, saying "we must get it [the
shuttle] behind us." "I want to retire it" before there
is a chance for another shuttle accident, he said.
The senators also had great concern about completing the space station,
with no one suggesting that there was any alternative to doing so. But
there was recognition and perhaps some worry that the shuttle fleet
and crews would have a very tight and aggressive schedule to finish
the station (involving perhaps five or six flights during some years).
Griffin told the senators that he was prepared to adopt a strategy that
would postpone, but not cancel, some on-board scientific research if
that was what was required to get the station built.
Several senators, notably Mikulski, asked pointed questions about servicing
the Hubble Space Telescope. "I have committed to reexamine"
the feasibility of a Hubble mission, Griffin told the subcommittee.
Griffin does not support a robotic mission, saying "I think we
need to get off that page." His approach seems to be based on his
contention that with the return-to-flight shuttle work that "we
have a new vehicle." Griffin intends to assess the first two shuttle
flights and to then make a decision. Also of issue were suggested cuts
in Earth Science research. Griffin told the senators that the concerns
of the science community had been heard, and NASA was reexamining its
portfolio. Regarding science spending generally, Griffin declared that
NASA "would not cut science to fund manned space flight,"
and that needed money would have to come from within the manned space
Also discussed at this hearing was NASA's future workforce. Shelby
raised this early in the hearing when he told Griffin, "do not
forget that the missions of tomorrow will not be possible if there are
no scientists and engineers being developed today. This is a serious
issue that must be addressed in order to ensure that future exploration
in space can occur."
This first hearing was quite upbeat with positive interactions on both
sides of the witness table. The difficulty lies ahead: as Griffin told
the senators, "NASA cannot afford everything that is on its plate
today." Deciding what to take off that plate in the coming months
is going to be a challenge of the first order for NASA Administrator
Griffin and the appropriators and authorizers on Capitol Hill.