Important Budget Hearings for NASA

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Publication date: 
30 April 2013

House and Senate appropriators have completed their hearings on the FY 2014 NASA budget request.  The House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee hearing was held before the Obama Administration sent its request to Congress; the Senate hearing was held last week.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden had a fairly uneventful hearing before House appropriators.  In contrast to previous hearings where there was much discussion about the James Webb Space Telescope and Planetary Science, this session was much less contentious.

Subcommittee Chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA) was particularly interested in NASA’s internal enforcement security regime, zeroing in on China.  Wolf described China as “an active, aggressive espionage threat” and used a substantial portion of his opening remarks to criticize NASA’s security enforcement procedures.  He was particularly critical of a “possible security violation” by a Chinese foreign national at NASA’s Langley Research Center and Ames Research Center.  “I feel very, very, very, very, very strongly about these issues” he said.  Later Wolf cited a statutory requirement restricting NASA’s cooperative activities with the Chinese government.  Bolden acknowledged there is “a difference in legal interpretation,” about its application to multilateral operations.  Bolden and Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) sparred over this language, Culberson declaring “this is an absolute prohibition.” 

Most of the discussion centered on NASA’s current and future programs and the impact funding restrictions, now made more difficult by sequestration, were having on maintaining program schedules.  Bolden told the subcommittee humans will be sent to an asteroid in 2025, and to Mars the following decade.  The new multi-purpose crew vehicle Orion will be tested in a little more than a year, and it will be paired with the powerful Space Launch System rocket in 2017.  Four years later the schedule calls for a manned flight of the paired vehicles.  Regarding the Webb Space Telescope, Bolden said “NASA is on track for the 2018 launch.”

Praise for the private organization that is independently managing research on the International Space Station was offered by subcommittee Ranking Member Chaka Fatah (D-PA).  Bolden replied that it was hoped that this arrangement would bring “credibility to the work that was being done on station.”  Bolden mentioned future earth science and solar science programs that will be placed onboard the station, and his hope that this arrangement would serve as a model for other space station partners.

“I personally think NASA is spread too thin,” said Culberson, adding that “interference politically,” year-to-year budgeting, and the lack of stability and predictability make it more difficult for the agency to successfully procure large systems.  He discussed a bill to change the way the agency operates that was the subject of a House Science subcommittee hearing earlier this year.   Bolden outlined the problems NASA is having because of budget constraints in the commercial crew program, and the need for flexibility to shift funds within the agency’s budget. 

The discussion turned to the science program, with Bolden describing it as aggressive, ambitious, and highly successful, refuting criticism of the Mars program as evidenced by the success of the Mars Rover.  A science definition team will report later this year on NASA’s future Martian program. 

Culberson strongly supports a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, contending that because of its plentiful supply of water “almost certainly, that’s where we’re going to discover life.”  Bolden resisted Culberson’s contention that NASA could participate in both a Mars sample return mission and a mission to Europa, telling the congressman “we can’t do both.”  Bolden said the agency will continue development efforts for Europa “at a lower level, not a full developmental program.”

Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) also spoke of his support for a Europa mission, and wanted to know the steps NASA was taking to keep the 2020 Mars mission launch on schedule.  Bolden said the mission “will be okay” if the agency can manage its funds as it is now doing.  But he warned  if the full ten years of sequestration is allowed to run its course that NASA’s budget will decline from $17.7 billion to $16 billion and “I don’t do magic.”  In a later answer to Rep. Joe Bonner (R-AL), Bolden described changes in NASA’s strategy, including an effort to fuse the human exploration and science programs because they are “interdependent.”

In a later exchange with Wolf, Bolden spoke of the Webb Space Telescope as being “under control” in schedule and cost, but warned if that were to be violated “there is a limit beyond which it will not go.”  While saying he did not anticipate that –“I don’t want to panic anybody” – Bolden said if a major unanticipated technical challenge arose causing a significant delay or budget problem NASA would evaluate if it is “worth trying to salvage this.” Later he described the telescope as a national priority that was established in NASA’s 2010 authorization act, and that he would not take money from it to fund another program. 

Toward the end of the hearing, Bolden testified that NASA would be able to fund the Space Launch System, the Multipurpose Crew Vehicle, International Space Station, commercial crew program, and the Webb Space telescope “to fit a flat funding profile” in the foreseeable future.  He again repeated how helpful it would be to have the ability to shift funding from one program to another. 

Bolden went to the other side of Capitol Hill last week to appear before the Senate Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee.  Time for this hearing was constrained because of a briefing on North Korea and Syria. 

Ranking Minority Member Richard Shelby’s (R-AL) comments centered on his concern, also shared by Committee Chairman Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), about whether there was sufficient funding to keep the 70-metric ton Space Launch System (SLS) on schedule.  Bolden gave assurances the FY 2014 $1.38 billion request would permit the rocket to be delivered on time.  Bolden also felt the launch of the 130-metric ton version of the SLS was also on cost and schedule for 2023. 

Mikulski’s questions centered on NASA’s overall budget and the impacts this first year and future years of sequestration would have on the agency and its project schedules.  Bolden did not mince words: if sequestration continues “I can’t do.”  It would, he predicted, “potentially impact” the Webb Space Telescope.  Sequestration will “definitely impact” the Space Launch System.  “It will devastate commercial crew and cargo,” he warned the senators.  And it would lead to the furlough of NASA’s civil servants.  “If we cannot get out from under sequester, all bets are off,” Bolden warned.

The rest of Mikulski’s questions were about the status of the Webb Space Telescope. “I’m afraid that the James Webb overruns could begin to eat NASA alive,” she said.  Bolden assured the senators, as he did the House appropriators, that the telescope is in on budget and on schedule. 

A “fiscal quagmire” is how Mikulski described the situation House and Senate appropriators are facing as they develop their funding bills.  Mikulski is the chairman of the full Senate Appropriations Committee, and for the process to get underway, she needs to know how much money she has to be able to allocate her subcommittees, including her own.  That is an open question as there is a wide gap between the Senate number of $1.05 trillion and the House number of $967 billion, without a clear path on how that difference will be resolved.    

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