Tuesday’s hearing of the House Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee on the FY 2015 NASA budget request and security practices lasted more than three hours. Although the subcommittee is very supportive of NASA, the hearing was marked by disagreements between NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and the subcommittee members.
Subcommittee Chairman Frank Wolf (R-VA) has long been critical of China and its practices and spoke during last year’s hearing about serious security deficiencies at several NASA research centers. Tuesday’s hearing began with a discussion about the findings and recommendations of an external review committee chaired by former Pennsylvania Governor Richard Thornburgh to address these problems. The panel made 27 recommendations to improve NASA’s foreign national access management process to counter what Thornburgh said were “insidious threats” to the agency’s integrity and operations. Bolden told the subcommittee that he accepted and was implementing all of the recommendations. It was an inauspicious way to open this hearing.
“Budgets are about choices” Bolden said in his opening remarks, echoing an almost identical statement at last month’s hearing of a House Science subcommittee on the FY 2015 request. The choices Bolden made in framing next year’s programs were made even more difficult since his overall budget would decline 1.1 percent under the request, with science funding declining 3.5 percent.
Wolf’s first question to Bolden about the agency’s portfolio concerned the proposed Asteroid Retrieval Mission, calling it “vague” and faulting it for not capturing the imagination of the public or Congress. Bolden said the mission was “very early” in its development, adding “we are going to assume a lot of risk with this mission.” He called the technologies that would be developed for this program – specifically citing solar electric propulsion – as “really critical.”
Bolden quickly shifted the conversation to the commercial crew program. He said it was his “number one objective” to get the appropriators to understand the “critical importance” of fully funding the $858 million FY 2015 request for this program. Without an American capability to bring U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station NASA will have to continue to pay Russia tens of millions of dollars for their transport services, he said. Without that low earth orbit infrastructure in place “everything else breaks down in terms of deep space exploration,” he told the subcommittee. Later in the hearing there was considerable – and at times quite strained – dialogue between Bolden and Wolf about the amount of money that Congress has provided for this program and the resulting impact on scheduling, which is now set for 2017.
The space station was also discussed with Members wanting to know the status of negotiations with partner nations to extend the station’s life to 2024. The U.S. and Russia have agreed to this extension; negotiations are underway with other nations. Later in the hearing there was considerable discussion about whether strains between Russia and the United States over Ukraine might threaten station operations, with Bolden reassuring the appropriators that there was a mutual dependence between both nations in utilizing the ISS.
During another round of questions prompted by Ranking Member Chaka Fattah (D-PA) about human travel to Mars, Bolden took issue with those claiming that NASA has not had a “road map.” “So we’ve been on this path since 2009. I can’t help that people want to refuse to accept the fact that we are on a progressive step-by-step path to get humans to Mars in the 2030s,” he told the subcommittee.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) asked about the status of a 2020 Mars sample return mission, with Bolden replying that the FY 2015 budget supports the program on this schedule. Bolden also discussed an executive senior review panel that is deciding the fate of missions that have been extended long beyond their projections and spoke of the need for a balanced portfolio of science projects as determined by NASA. Responding to another question from Schiff, Bolden said negotiations were underway with India about the NASA-ISRO Synthetic Aperture Radar mission, and that a possible launch date had not been scheduled.
NASA’s science programs were also the focus of Rep. John Culberson’s (R-TX) questions. Culberson has long advocated a mission to Europa, calling it of “extraordinary importance.” He contrasted the relative amounts of water between Europa and Enceladus. “You’ve got all the elements for life on Europa,” Culberson said, reminding Bolden that Congress makes ultimate funding decisions.
The proposed defunding of the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) was the focus on Rep. Mike Honda’s (D-CA) questions. Bolden said a final determination has not been made, calling it a “proposal.” He referred to an evaluation that had been made by the astrophysics community, saying it “did not have SOFIA ranked high enough in their prioritization” to make the cut. Bolden ascribed part of the funding difficulty to the impact of previous sequestration. “We are still looking for ways to save SOFIA” he said, referring to a recent solicitation for other partners for the project.
The hearing ended with a discussion about travel costs for senior NASA officials. Wolf thanked Bolden for his appearance and his testimony and the hearing adjourned.
The disagreements between Bolden and the appropriators were not cast in partisan terms. Rather, they were differences about funding priorities at a time when NASA is being asked to do more with less. Culberson spoke for the subcommittee when he told Bolden midway through the hearing “You’ve got no better friends in Congress than on this subcommittee devoted to you and going to do everything we can to support you. . . . We work arm in arm to do everything we can to give you the support you need and we're very proud of NASA's mission and we'll do everything we can and we will continue to do all that we can to help you, sir.”
Note: selections are from a transcript prepared by and used with the permission of CQ Roll Call