“I need to know more,” was as supportive as Senate Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) could be about the Administration’s new space exploration policy at yesterday’s hearing on the FY 2011 NASA request. Other senators on the panel were far more definitive, expressing outright hostility to the Administration’s new policy.
This hearing was the first since President Barack Obama’s speech at the Kennedy Space Center last week to discuss his Administration’s new policy. The hearing, featuring NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and John Frost of NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel, demonstrated that the Administration is facing a long, uphill battle to convince Members of Congress that its new policy is a path forward for the U.S. space program.
Mikulski was supportive of many aspects of the FY 2011 request. She praised the prominence the Administration gave to NASA science programs, which would receive a 12 percent increase under the request. On the controversial issue of the remaining life span of the shuttle she was clear, saying “It’s time to retire the space shuttle.” Saying “it’s a better value for our dollar,” Mikulski expressed support for keeping the International Space Station active until 2020.
Mikulski’s tone shifted when she spoke of the Constellation Program. “The area of controversy is huge,” she told Administrator Bolden, calling the proposed changes “extremely dramatic.” Saying that every administration cannot reinvent NASA, she outlined her own priorities, with astronaut safety being at the top of her list. The issue of astronaut safety was raised repeatedly during the hearing, and is likely to be a major factor in determining whether Congress accepts the new policy.
Ranking Member Richard Shelby’s (R-AL) hostility to the Administration’s policy is unmistakable. He characterized it as an “abdication of America’s leadership in space,” leading to the U.S. being “subservient to, and reliant on, other countries for our access to space.” Shelby charged that the policy would “set up a welfare program for the commercial space industry,” and faulted the Administration for not conducting “independent market research to show that this private launch market even exists.” He charged Bolden with “attempting to undermine the letter and the spirit of the law as it relates to current funding of Constellation. Your destructive actions toward the Constellation program will only ensure that Members cannot trust you. You, Mr. Administrator, are creating an atmosphere where you and your leadership team have become a major impediment to moving forward.”
Reaction from two other senators was in the same vein. Senator Robert Bennett (R-UT) told Bolden “you haven’t made the sale,” criticizing it harshly on scientific, funding, legal, and industrial grounds. “You have not made the case this will save money,” he said, calling NASA’s actions a “clear violation of the law.” Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) called herself “skeptical and very disappointed” in the proposed policy to provide funding to assist the development of a commercial launch vehicle, saying it was not sound or reliable. “It just doesn’t all come together” she said. Two other senators on the subcommittee - Thad Cochran (R-MS) and George Voinovich (R-OH) - did not seem to be as opposed to the new policy, but also did not seem ready to embrace it.
Bolden argued that the Administration is fully committed to NASA and its missions, telling the senators that the agency would ensure that NASA’s safety standards would apply to a commercial launch vehicle. He told the senators that NASA had not violated any contractual terms. Bolden said he was also concerned about the industrial base, adding that the solid rocket base has been overcapitalized and would necessarily have to downsize.
Also testifying was John Frost of the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel. Both Mikulski and Shelby showed particular interest in the Panel’s views on the space shuttle, its follow-on, workforce transition, and infrastructure. Excerpts from his testimony will appear in a future FYI.
Yesterday’s hearing made clear that the Congress and American people confront difficult decisions in the coming months. “Frankly, I think NASA has been starved during several Administrations,” admitted Hutchison, leading to the situation that the United States now faces. What the path forward should be is still an unsettled issue, with Mikulski telling Bolden that she has 13 pages of questions on the FY 2011 NASA budget request.