Little Movement in Congressional Opposition to New Space Policy

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Publication date: 
9 June 2010

There is little apparent change in the level of congressional opposition to the Administration’s proposed space policy.  Senate and House hearings by authorizing committees found minimal overt support for the new policy, and demonstrated wide-ranging and continuing opposition to the proposed termination of  the Constellation Program.

At the May 12 hearing of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) indicated that he has not made a decision about the proposed policy.  He called for NASA to chart a “new direction,” and said the U.S. “cannot afford” to maintain the Constellation Program if only to prevent potential job losses.  Rockefeller predicted that hard choices must be made, since NASA’s current budget “may be a high water mark for years to come.”Ranking Member Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) remains steadfast in her opposition, saying she found serious flaws in the proposed policy, declaring  “our 40 years of leadership in space is on the line.”  Senator Bill Nelson’s  (D-FL) words were supportive, describing changes  in the Administration’s plan since it was announced in February, and calling for its further refinement by the authorizing and appropriating committees.  The subcommittee’s Ranking Member, David Vitter (R-LA) was very critical in his comments about the proposed policy.

It would be a mistake to characterize support or opposition to the proposed policy as being drawn along party lines.  Members and witnesses at various hearings this year have discussed the importance of bipartisan support for NASA, given the long-term nature of many of its programs that continue through multiple Administrations and Congresses.  The bipartisan opposition to the new policy was evident at the May 26 House Science and Technology Committee’s hearing, where the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee Chair, Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) and Ranking Member Pete Olson (R-TX) criticized the policy.  Science Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) did not flatly oppose the new policy, but questioned whether its proposed funding would be sufficient, telling NASA Administrator Charles Bolden “the burden of proof is on your shoulders to make the case that you have an executable program.”  Committee Ranking Member Ralph Hall (R-TX) was very wary, saying “in the absence of a defensible, credible plan, I and many of our members continue to support the Constellation program as currently authorized and appropriated by successive Congresses.”

“It clearly was time to press the reset button,” Office of Science and Policy Director John Holdren told the Senate panel, describing the persistent disparity between funding for NASA and its goals.  Administrator Bolden made the same point at both hearings.  Committee members at both hearings raised concerns that have been previously discussed and from all indications are still outstanding issues.  In response to continuing questions about the future of human space flight, Bolden told Members “the top priority for NASA, in my estimation, is human space flight development and pushing us beyond the bonds of low earth orbit.  Everything else is second.”   Holdren and Bolden reassured Members that safety would remain under NASA’s oversight.  They disputed contentions that NASA senior personnel were not involved in the formulation of the policy.  Both denied that NASA was currently canceling contracts.   Bolden reiterated his belief that commercial providers would be able to transport American astronauts to the space station, freeing money for the pursuit of new technologies and missions.  Norman Augustine testified at the Senate hearing, reiterating the points that he has made in other presentations.  Few Members at either hearing appeared to change their minds.

Both hearings featured Neil Armstrong and Eugene Cernan, the first and last lunar astronauts, who were very critical of the new policy, as was Thomas Young, former executive vice president of Lockheed Martin.  Their testimony, as well as that of Bolden, Holdren, and Augustine can be viewed at the following committee web sites: House  and Senate.

In his opening comments, House Science Committee Chairman Gordon told Bolden: “We all share the goals of inspiring and innovating and exploring.  Let me be clear. I have no interest in having to have another Augustine committee in five years. Your task today is to convince this Committee that this is truly a well-thought out, responsibly budgeted, executable plan.”From all appearances, convincing Congress to accept, and adopt, this plan is still a work in progress.