While House Science Committee members probably will never agree about how much funding NASA should receive in the next fiscal year, there are common concerns that both Republicans and Democrats expressed about the FY 2015 budget request at a recent hearing. Prominent among them are the commercial crew program, the Space Launch System and Orion crew capsule, and a new $1.1 billion airborne observatory that NASA proposes to put into storage this fall.
“Budgets are about priorities,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told the Subcommittee on Space at last Thursday’s hearing on his agency’s $17.46 billion budget request. If approved, Bolden would have 1.1 percent less money to work with in the next fiscal year; science funding would be cut by 3.5 percent. Putting pressure on NASA’s request was an increase in overall FY 2015 funding for all discretionary programs of just 0.2 percent.
The agency’s priorities were the focus of this hearing. “Commercial crew is the critical need for the nation right now” Bolden the subcommittee, emphasizing the need for American commercial crew transportation to the International Space Station. Originally planned to be ready by 2015, commercial crew transportation it is now scheduled for 2017 because of congressional reductions in previous requests. Bolden chided Congress for making these cuts and said the 2017 date could only be met if the $848.3 million FY2015 request is approved. Current funding is $696.0 million.
Bolden spoke of the direct linkage between the success of the commercial crew program and the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion capsule program. Saying there was no need for SLS and Orion if there is not a commercial crew capability, Bolden repeatedly defended the budget request to skeptical subcommittee members. Subcommittee Chairman Steven Palazzo (R-MS) disagreed, calling the proposed $330 million reduction to the SLS and Orion programs “simply unacceptable.” Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX), Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Subcommittee Ranking Member Donna Edwards (D-MD) also expressed concern about the proposed reduction. Bolden said SLS and Orion are on track with uncrewed test flights of Orion scheduled for later this year.
The Administration’s intention to put the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) into storage in FY 2015 drew comment from both Republican and Democratic members. Developed with Germany, Bolden characterized SOFIA in his prepared testimony as “a mission with high annual operating costs that cannot be accommodated within the FY 2015 budget request.” While calling it a unique asset and emphasizing that the aircraft mounted observatory was now in use, Bolden said “SOFIA was down here” (motioning with his hand close to the witness table) when compared to other NASA science programs. When discussing this program he mentioned input from the science community and budget pressures from other missions that continue past their anticipated lifespan. Yesterday NASA issued a Request for Information for potential new partners for SOFIA.
Also discussed was a 2021 Mars and Venus fly-by mission that was the subject of a March hearing. “While the mission is not without challenges, it is intriguing and would catch the public’s imagination,” Smith said. Bolden disagreed, commenting later in the hearing “Mars fly-by is great but it doesn’t do anything for us,” adding that he doubted the crew would survive. He is, he said, “not a fan of a one-time Mars fly-by.”
None of the subcommittee members embraced the proposed asteroid retrieval mission. Smith expressed his skepticism: “The Administration continues to push an asteroid retrieval mission on NASA without any connection to a larger exploration roadmap and absent support from the scientific community or NASA’s own advisory bodies. It is a mission without a realistic budget, without a destination and without a certain launch date.” Responding to a later question, Bolden emphasized the importance of the asteroid mission’s cislunar research as an important component of an eventual human landing on Mars.
The hearing touched on other topics. There was little talk about the James Webb Space Telescope. In his written testimony Bolden stated it “remains on cost and schedule for launch in 2018.” Replying to a question, Bolden expressed optimism about two climate sensor instruments that were shifted from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to NASA and which are to be installed on the International Space Station. Regarding plutonium for future deep space missions, Bolden briefly described an agreement with the Department of Energy to provide assistance for infrastructure modernization. There are sufficient supplies for existing missions, with additional fuel needed to augment aging stocks. In response to questions about the detection and deflection of asteroids that could threaten the Earth, Bolden said he was “highly confident” that an asteroid of one kilometer or larger could be detected posing a danger in the next 100 years, but NASA’s ability to deflect it was “nothing.” Members also asked whether heightened tensions between Russia and the United States might lead to a suspension of Russian transit of U.S. astronauts to the Space Station. “I am not aware of any threat” Bolden replied, adding that NASA is in daily contact with its Russian counterpart agency. Expanding on this topic in response to later questions, Bolden said that Russia is equally dependent on the U.S. for station operations. There was also discussion about NASA’s science programs, with Bolden saying the agency is maintaining its science portfolio despite budgetary reductions.
In contrast to last year’s markup of a NASA authorization bill, this hearing was almost devoid of partisan differences. A common concern was, as one Member stated, recognition that no one was content with the amount of money that is available to the space agency. That concern will again be expressed next Tuesday when Bolden testifies before House appropriators.