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Mikulski on NASA: "There is No Silver Bullet"

Richard M. Jones
Number 45 - April 11, 2008  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), Chair of the Senate Commerce, Justice, and Science Appropriations Subcommittee, was discussing the five-year gap for the replacement of the space shuttle when she told NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, "So what you're saying is there is no silver bullet. There is no magic motion available to close the gap." Griffin agreed. They could have been talking about the much larger funding gap between what many in Congress want the space agency to do, and the amount of money Congress is able to appropriate for NASA every year.

This exchange between Mikulski and Griffin occurred during an April 3 hearing of the subcommittee on the FY 2009 NASA budget request. Mikulski was the only senator at this hearing; Ranking Member Richard Shelby (R-AL) was assisting in the management of a major mortgage foreclosure assistance bill on the Senate floor.

Mikulski, a strong supporter of NASA and its programs, is highly critical of previous Administration budget requests. Said Mikulski: "And so when they embarked upon the Mars mission . . . they never gave us any money. So we are very frustrated that we were given an assignment without the money, and it fell upon us to come up with the money." She continued, speaking now of the space station, "We've got all those international partners involved, and we wonder how in the hell are we going to get there. So we're cranky. We're not cranky with you, but we're cranky, because we keep feeling like we're being set up. . . . "

There were several major issues that Mikulski and Griffin discussed. The common denominator for each is the lack of sufficient funding. Among them were:

REPLACEMENT OF THE SPACE SHUTTLE:

"Everyone's deeply concerned about the gap," Mikulski told Griffin, referring to the often-discussed five-year gap between the scheduled retirement of the space shuttle in 2010 and NASA's new Orion and Ares system that will fly in 2015. During this time, NASA will have to rely on the Russian Soyuz system for crew transportation only to the station. Mikulski asked Griffin if this gap could be reduced with additional funding. Griffin replied it would cost at the rate of a $100 million to shorten the schedule by a single month. It would be impossible to shorten the schedule to be earlier than the late fall of 2013, "given the water over the dam behind us," he said. Mikulski told Griffin: "What I want to do, working on a bipartisan basis, [is to] see we what we can do to prudently, both from an engineering and technology perspective and from a fiscal perspective . . . to see if we can't find the funds to accelerate closing the gap."

FLYING THE SPACE SHUTTLE BEYOND 2010:

Mikulski told Griffin: "there are some Members in the House who are raising the concept of extending the life of the shuttle until 2015." Griffin replied, "the shuttle is an inherently risky design," with NASA calculating that if the shuttle was flown twice a year for an additional five years "the risk would be about one in twelve that we would lose another crew. That's a high risk." He added, "To fly the shuttle after the space station is completed for any significant length of time I believe would incur a risk I would not choose to accept on behalf of our astronauts." It would, Griffin said, cost around $3 billion a year keep the shuttle flying. If this $3 billion came out of NASA's budget, it could delay the launch of the Orion and Ares system, at a rate of a month's delay for every $100 million that was redirected. "You extend the [five-year] gap, if you fly the shuttle longer," Griffin told Mikulski. Mikulski was clear in her response: "I can't speak for my colleagues, but speaking for myself, I would not envision to try to keep the shuttle going. I think the risk is inherent, and the national goals are not that which we want to accomplish."

SPACE SCIENCE:

"Science at NASA is something that's so important, because it saves lives, saves the planet, and creates jobs for the future. So I'm puzzled why the science budget has been flat funded for this year and for the next five years," said Mikulski. Earth science and planetary science would be "winners," "others seem to not do as well – astrophysics and heliophysics," she said later. Mikulski wanted to know if there was enough funding "to meet our existing obligations to science and continue the development of new ones?" Griffin replied, "our science budget as a fraction of our portfolio is around 32 percent this year, and it is at historically high levels. So science is well funded at NASA. It is not growing as much as we would like until 2011, when we retire the shuttle. Science resumes its growth at the top line starting in 2011. As you noted yourself, in these current years our entire NASA top line growth is only 1.8 percent, and so for science to be slightly less than that is not a major difference between the agency's top line and the science portfolio top line. We are budgeted. We are budgeted to meet the commitments that we've made -- everything from Hubble and James Webb [space telescopes] down to Mars Science Lab and other things and other divisions of our science portfolio. We are budgeted to meet the commitments we've made to you."

Griffin continued, "Just as in our human space flight program, more money will buy more product. And there are always more new and interesting and fascinating science missions to do. But we have a rich plate of missions, and I believe that we're adequately funded to execute the ones we have said we will execute. Earth science did receive an increase this year, I think in respect to the new Earth science decadal [report]. That's something we wanted to do. . . . And we have revamped our Earth science portfolio to respect that decadal. But at the same time, astrophysicists and planetary scientists and heliophysicists also have decadal surveys, and we try to honor those missions as well."

Mikulski replied that she was heartened to hear Griffin's reply, and asked about the failing sensors that were to have been included on the future NPOESS spacecraft, which have been descoped. Mikulski said she would have a continuing conversation with Griffin about this problem.

Mikulski told Griffin that she intended to have the committee complete its version of the FY 2009 Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations bill before the Memorial Day recess. This bill also funds the National Science Foundation and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Mikulski indicated she will see if a way can be found to shorten the five-year gap following the shuttle's retirement, and improve the request for the science and aeronautics accounts. Mikulski will also seek an additional $1 billion to cover safety improvements following the loss of the last space shuttle. She told Griffin: "We regard this year as a year of transition . . . because this time next year we will have a new president. . . . whatever we do for this year's appropriation for fiscal '09 will be the operating budget for the president's first year for the space program. So we've got to get it right, as the new president comes in. So as the chair of this year, I'm going to make sure we put the right resources in the right places in the checkbook to make sure America's space program remains number one in the world."

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics
rjones@aip.org
301-209-3095