Science Committee Supports Space Station Program Reforms

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Publication date: 
9 November 2001

Witnesses at a November 7 House Science Committee hearing testified that a permanent space station with a three-person crew, reduced research capability, and only a "core" configuration was one viable outcome of the station program. Thomas Young, who chaired the International Space Station Management and Cost Evaluation Task Force, appeared with OMB Deputy Director Sean O'Keefe to discuss the Task Force's recommendations for the future of the space station. Both O'Keefe and the committee members agreed that the Task Force report laid out an acceptable blueprint for how to proceed with the program and how to determine the appropriate "end state" for the station. O'Keefe called the Task Force recommendations a "good course of action" that the Administration could work with.

As reported in FYI #135, the Task Force found the current space station program and cost estimate "not credible," and outlined a number of management reforms and other program changes to free up additional funds and make completion of the "core complete" station configuration, by FY 2006 and within current cost caps, more achievable. (The core complete version lacks the originally-planned Crew Return Vehicle, Node 3, Habitation and Propulsion modules and some research capability, and would support only a three-person permanent crew.) While acknowledging that the core complete configuration would not utilize the station's full research potential, the Task Force recommended that as a first step, NASA make the suggested changes and demonstrate the program's credibility over the next several years. Only then, if the program performance was satisfactory, would a decision be made about whether to supply additional resources and enhance the station with items beyond the core configuration. Also during the next several years, NASA should establish its science priorities for the program, which would then help determine the desired "end state," including the appropriate number of permanent crew.

In his testimony, Young reiterated that the current plan to achieve core complete by FY 2006 for a budget of $8.3 billion was "not credible." However, the Task Force believed that its recommendations, "if properly implemented," could restore the program's credibility and possibly enable the core configuration to be completed within the program's cost cap. He outlined ways to achieve cost savings by reducing shuttle flights, and to increase science utilization by overlapping Soyuz visits to the station. The program's current financial management tools were "inadequate," he said, and the cost estimates for enhancements beyond core complete were not sufficiently developed yet to assess their credibility.

There was broad agreement among the committee and the witnesses that the technical accomplishments demonstrated so far by the space station program were outstanding, but all agreed that the primary purpose of the station was as a science program, not an infrastructure program. Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R- NY) said the Task Force and the Administration "have outlined the proper way to make the best of a bad situation.... Today's hearing is really just the beginning of a multi-year process to reform the space station program and determine if it can be expanded beyond its core elements." He seemed to express the views of all committee members present when he said, "in the final analysis, we want the space station program to go forward, and to produce significant scientific advancements for the nation and the world."

To no avail, Ranking Minority Member Ralph Hall (D-TX) urged the Administration to "make clear up front...that it intends to honor its commitments" and build the full, seven-person station. He and Space Subcommittee Ranking Member Bart Gordon (D-TN) pressed Young on whether permanently completing the station at the core configuration was a wasted investment, but Young said that statement was "too strong." He said the Task Force spent much effort trying to balance cost issues against scientific capabilities to "arrive at an intermediate solution." Young pointed out that the report does not preclude a permanent core complete configuration, but added, "I do not believe the core complete program would be a waste, but I believe it would be a significant disappointment." He acknowledged that such a configuration would not realize the station's unique research potential: "There's no question but that a three-person crew adversely impacts the science," as well as agreements with the international partners.

O'Keefe agreed that, "while it may not be optimum," the core complete configuration would be worthwhile to finish. He added that if the management reforms and other remedial actions are successful in restoring credibility to the program, there would not have to be any ultimate reduction in capability.

Several committee members raised concerns about the response of the international station partners to the Task Force recommendations, and about a potential lack of NASA leadership to implement the reforms, with both NASA Administrator Dan Goldin and the Associate Administrator for Human Space Flight due to leave the space agency in the near future. Rep. Dave Weldon (R- FL) challenged a Task Force finding that the single biggest factor in the program's cost growth was NASA's culture of managing to an annual budget instead of taking into account total program cost. Weldon said there was "plenty of blame to spread around" and that congressional and administration policies and cost caps played a role in the escalating costs.

As the questioning drew to a close, Rep. Gordon summarized the main points of the hearing: that "the major, if not only, purpose of the station is science," and that it would take "a Herculean effort" to achieve the core complete station within the current budget allocation. He concluded, "the Administration is telling us it's not going to make a commitment" to enhancements and further resources until NASA has made the suggested program changes to restore credibility and prove it can achieve the core configuration. He asked O'Keefe to return in the spring to give the committee a status report on the program's progress.

Future FYIs will provide details on what level of funding the FY 2002 VA/HUD appropriations conference report provides for the space station program, and what conferees had to say about the program's cost overruns.