Long Day on Capitol Hill for OSTP Director John Holdren

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Publication date: 
1 March 2010

Last Wednesday, Office of Science and Technology Policy Director John Holdren spent much of his day testifying on Capitol Hill about the Obama Administration’s FY 2011 R&D budget request.  That morning he appeared at a cordial hearing of the House Science and Technology Committee.  The tone of this session contrasted with that of an afternoon hearing of the House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee, where Holdren encountered lengthy and highly critical questioning about the Administration’s new space policy.

The Administration’s proposal to terminate NASA’s Constellation Program in the next fiscal year is one of the largest, if not the largest, science and technology policy issues before Congress.  A decision about the future of NASA’s human space flight program has long been in the making, with authorizers and appropriators recognizing that the agency has received insufficient funding to carry out the Bush Administration’s plan to return U.S. astronauts to the moon, and to later travel to Mars.  This recognition was the major impetus for the establishment of the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee  that was chaired by Norman Augustine.  It confirmed what almost everyone recognized: that there was not enough money in past, current or projected NASA budgets to design and build new rockets and an astronaut capsule in a timely manner.

At the House hearing, there was a general consensus that the overall request for S&T funding is correct, with the committee’s chairman, Bart Gordon (D-TN) commenting “recognizing that we are in a time of constrained budgets . . .  I was very happy to see strong increases for research and development in the president’s budget.”  Ralph Hall (R-TX), the Ranking Minority Member on the Science Committee was more guarded, saying that “while being supportive of strong funding for basic research, I am concerned with where this budget is taking us and the ways the Administration is choosing to direct the American taxpayer’s research dollars.”

The proposed termination of the Constellation Program was the focus of many questions.  Other concerns were the future of the National Polar-Orbiting Environmental Satellite System, nuclear energy and Yucca Mountain, climate change (and the release of related email messages), STEM education, scientific integrity, and strengthening the American innovation and manufacturing system.  At several times, Holdren was asked sharply-worded questions and it was apparent that members of both parties have significant concerns, if not outright opposition, to some of the Administration’s actions and proposals – especially in regard to the termination of the Constellation Program.

The tone of the afternoon hearing of the House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Committee was strikingly different.  Subcommittee Chairman Allan Mollohan (D-WV) was in attendance for only the hearing’s opening because of a scheduling conflict.  His opening remarks and questions touched on the expiration of the America COMPETES Act, STEM teaching, and NASA.

Mollohan criticized the Bush Administration’s “hollow vision” for NASA and the five or more year gap between the retirement of the shuttle and the Constellation Program launch system.  He called the Obama Administration’s convening of the Augustine committee an “extremely responsible” act, but said the Administration has to “flesh out the President’s skinny presentation” on the proposed space policy.  Holdren responded by first explaining that Augustine had endorsed the Administration’s new policy, which Holdren characterized as not a retreat from human space flight, but a way to accomplish it better, for less expense, and more safely.  The new policy is not centered on one destination - the moon - that Americans have already been to, he said.  This policy extends the life of the space station, supports the remaining space shuttle flights, and should reduce the gap before a new system is launched.  Mollohan replied that he was still concerned that the United States would no longer be preeminent in space.

Ranking Member Frank Wolf (R-VA) was very critical to the proposed policy.  He differed with Holdren about the significance of a successful human lunar mission by Russia or China.  Wolf was concerned about job losses if the Constellation Program is cancelled, with Holdren saying that initially 5,000 jobs could be lost in Florida, although a significant percentage of these workers could be retrained for other space operations.

“This came out of no where,” said Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger (D-MD) of the Constellation’s proposed cancellation, later saying “the concept sounds great.”  Will the United States return to the Moon and send humans to Mars, he asked.  Holdren replied, “In short, yes,” adding everyone agrees that “Mars is the ultimate destination.”  The congressman was not entirely convinced, saying “I worried we’re going too quickly on this thing.”

Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) is very opposed to the new space policy.  He questioned Holdren about the timing of the decision to terminate the Constellation Program relative to the release of the Augustine report, and asked about the Administration’s interactions with NASA’s field center directors regarding the proposed termination.  Expressing his concern about foreign human space flight programs Culberson said, “You are proposing surrendering [Gettysburg’s] Little Round Top.”  With considerable emotion, he used words such as mortified, embarrassing and unacceptable in characterizing his reactions to the proposed policy.

During this first round of questioning, other members asked whether there would be a mechanism to recoup R&D federal funding that forms the basis for private launch systems, planetary exploration, and the development of a heavy lift launch capability.  Holdren assured one appropriator that the President would provide further detail about the new space policy.  Holdren also explained that the Administration had not cancelling existing contracts, and would work with the Congress as it develops the new policy.

The mood in the hearing room shifted after the members returned from voting on the House floor.  Ranking Member Wolf accused the Administration of arrogance and secrecy, and told Holdren “I’m going to oppose what you are trying to do . . . I’m going to do everything I can to stop this.”  Culberson sharply questioned when a new launch system would be ready under the new policy, although he also said he “was appalled” with the Bush Administration’s vision that was, he said, “a press release.”

Last Wednesday’s hearings were only the first of many that will be held by Congress this year on the Administration’s new space policy.  It is very clear that much more work is needed to convince Members of Congress that this new policy is the way forward.