Four hours of congressional hearings during the last two weeks found little support for the Obama Administration’s decision to cancel NASA’s Constellation program. Although the tone of the Senate and House hearings was less strident than that of an earlier House appropriations subcommittee hearing that OSTP Director John Holdren testified at, it is clear that opposition to this plan is both deep and bipartisan on both sides of the Capitol.
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden testified at both hearings. His first appearance was before the Senate Subcommittee on Science and Space on February 24. The sentiments of subcommittee chairman Bill Nelson (D-FL) were mixed. He praised the $6 billion increase the Administration seeks for NASA over the next five years, saying that in the current budgetary environment “that is no small matter.”He described President Obama as “a space fan, a space aficionado,” and added “now there’s a lot that is good in this budget from this senator’s perspective,” mentioning recommended funding for aeronautics, science, earth observation, STEM education, and the proposal to fly the international space station until 2020.
But then Nelson turned to last month’s NASA budget rollout, criticizing it for the lack of a clear Administration declaration on human space flight. Said Nelson: “It gave the perception the President was killing the manned space flight program,” adding “Now the problem is, we live in the world of perception. . . . If the substance is different from the perception, we need to straighten it out.” He called for the President or his Administration to clearly state NASA’s goal, which Nelson contends should be a human mission to Mars. Nelson had numerous concerns about the new policy, including the elimination of a heavy-lift vehicle program within the agency, the risk of the U.S. being sidelined as other nations travel to the moon, possible crew safety impacts, and the loss of a talented workforce. The subcommittee’s Ranking Republican, David Vitter (R-LA), was even more critical, saying the “very radical budget proposal “ would be the end of NASA’s human space flight program, replacing it with “a hope and a prayer.” He predicted that the five-year gap between the shuttle’s retirement and its follow-on craft would be extended to “infinity.” Vitter promised to fight the new policy “with every ounce of energy he has.”
Opening statements by House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) and Ranking Minority Member Pete Olson (R-TX) at their February 25 hearing were just as critical. Gordon, as had Nelson, first commented favorably on the additional funding the Administration proposes for NASA, saying “in a fiscal environment in which many federal agencies and programs are facing funding freezes, it represents a vote of confidence in NASA that should not be ignored.” He also praised the proposed increases for earth science and aeronautics, and for keeping the space station active until 2020. Echoing Vitter, Gordon characterized the new policy a "radical change," and asked Bolden “a feature of this proposal, and one that has not generated much support on the Hill, is the plan to rely on as-yet-to-be-developed commercial crew transport systems with no government backup system. Leaving aside issues of safety for the moment, do you have concrete evidence that you can provide us that shows that there will be sufficient non-NASA commercial crew transport markets to keep these companies viable, or is NASA going to be on the hook to do whatever it takes to keep them in business since NASA will have no other means of getting into orbit? That is, will NASA’s actions make these companies ‘too important to fail’ despite the lack of any significant existing markets for their proposed services – with all of the implications for the American taxpayer inherent in that phrase?”
Olson’s statement touched on similar points: “I am deeply troubled about the future viability of America’s human space flight program. On the eve of completing the International Space Station and retiring the Space Shuttle, I cannot understand how the Administration can propose such an ill-conceived decision to cancel the Constellation program without providing a compelling alternative plan with measurable goals and adequate resources. This budget proposal, relying as heavily as it does on the unproven capabilities of a nascent commercial space industry, contains very few details. At worst, I am afraid that its reliance on commercial is unfounded, and as a consequence, it not only threatens our leadership in space and our utilization of the International Space Station, but it also risks the loss of much of our aerospace industrial base and our highly-skilled workforce.”
Bolden’s oral and written testimony addressed the Administration’s position on a human mission to Mars, something he was asked about many times at both hearings. His 19-page written testimony to both committees states: “In FY 2011, NASA will undertake: Transformative technology development and demonstrations to pursue new approaches to human spaceflight exploration with more sustainable and advanced capabilities that will allow Americans to explore the Moon, Mars and other destinations.”Nelson asked Bolden if he had received approval to testify that a human space flight to Mars was NASA’s goal. Bolden replied that the statement had been cleared “all the way up to the wickets of the White House as well.”
Many members of both committees have a deep interest in NASA, some of whom have large NASA facilities or contractors in their districts. Workforce issues were raised repeatedly at both hearings. Bolden admitted that jobs will be lost, and at the Senate hearing his voice broke slightly when he spoke about the impacts this policy could have on an engineer with a family. While NASA will work hard to minimize worker dislocations, and expects some employees to be rehired, high skill and wage jobs are expected to be lost. “I will never be able to save all the jobs” Bolden told the senators.
Members at both hearings asked Bolden about the decision making process leading up to Constellation’s cancellation. Bolden replied that he was involved in discussions with members of the Administration and with the President, but would not, as is long-standing practice, discuss predecisional deliberations. Nelson contends that “OMB [Office of Management and Budget] is running the space program because it designs the budget." Representative Olson made a similar point, saying the budget had been assembled by a “small cabal of people here in D.C.” Were you included in those discussions he asked Bolden, who assured Olson that he had been, and then said “It is my budget.”
Another area of deep concern is whether this policy will result in the United States losing its leadership in space. Members were very concerned that American astronauts would have to depend on Russian transportation to the space station. Bolden reminded them that this would have been the case had the policy not been changed since the shuttle has long been scheduled for retirement. One House member wondered if astronauts making cutting-edge discoveries would speak English or Chinese. Other members asked about the national security implications of the cancellation of NASA’s program to develop a heavy-lift vehicle. Many Members contend American students would be less likely to pursue a career in science or engineering because of this new policy.
“You must convince me” that the proposed policy is better than the current policy a House member commented. That would seem to be true for almost every member of both committees, and judging from the reaction that OSTP Director Holdren received at the earlier House appropriations’ hearing, that sentiment seems generally universal. Nelson told Bolden that “I have never seen the appropriators and authorizers united as we are.” Gordon made the same point: “So far, this plan has not found a lot of support here on the Hill. That could change, of course, but at present I cannot be confident that the votes are there to enact this budget proposal as is, and you shouldn’t be either. So I’m going to ask you to be flexible and open, as changes may be required to this plan if we are to achieve a durable consensus here in Congress."
As difficult as it might be to “achieve a durable consensus,” finding a way to finance future human exploration of the moon and Mars under the existing policy has proven much more difficult. “We were living a hallucination” before the release of the FY 2011 budget Bolden told the members, adding “I don’t think we would have ever gotten there.”