House Science Committee Hearing Explores Different Governance Models for NASA

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Publication date: 
29 February 2016

Longtime NASA supporter and powerful appropriator Rep. John Culberson testified in support of legislation which would overhaul governance of the space agency to help insulate it from turnovers in presidential administrations and Congress. Committee members viewed the legislation as well-intentioned, but some questioned the details and argued that Congress, not the Administration, has ultimate responsibility for ensuring stability of purpose at NASA.

With the 2016 election looming large in the minds of many, the House Science Committee held a hearing on Feb. 25 to discuss ways of ensuring programmatic stability at NASA through presidential transitions and turnovers in Congress.

The committee first heard from Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), chairman of the subcommittee responsible for NASA appropriations, on a bill he introduced last August entitled the “Space Leadership Preservation Act.” He introduced similar versions of the bill in 2012 and 2013. Neither received a vote, although the House Science Committee held a hearing to discuss the legislation in 2013.

After Culberson’s testimony, former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, retired astronaut Colonel Eileen Collins, and Government Accountability Office acquisition analyst Cristina Chaplain offered their first-hand perspectives on the effects of past abrupt programmatic changes at NASA and weighed in on Culberson’s legislation.

Searching for stability

Among other actions, Culberson’s bill would create an 11-member Board of Directors responsible for nominating a list of candidates which the president would have to pick from in choosing a NASA Administrator with a ten-year term. Furthermore, the Board would present their own budget proposal for NASA alongside the president’s annual budget request.

Culberson argued that his proposal would help keep “politics out of science,” insulating NASA from both “the political whims of any one presidential administration and the political whims of Congress.”

Lamar Smith (R-TX), committee chairman and a co-sponsor of Culberson’s bill, attributed much blame for lack of stability at NASA to the Executive Branch:

Presidential transitions often have provided a challenge to NASA programs that require continuity and budget stability. But few have been as rocky as the administration change we experienced seven years ago. …The 2005, 2008, and 2010 NASA Authorization Acts are consistent in their direction to NASA. NASA needs the same certainty from the Executive Branch that it receives from Congress.

Committee ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) offered a contrasting view, arguing that the bill is unnecessary as Congress has ultimate responsibility for ensuring stability of purpose at NASA:

The reality is that we don’t need to set up a new bureaucracy outside of NASA or alter the appointment process for its leaders. If we are interested in ensuring stability at NASA, it is already in our power as Congress to do so. We are the ones who ultimately determine NASA’s budget. We can provide the necessary budgetary stability to NASA—or we can destabilize it with appropriations delays, continuing resolutions, and shutdowns. The choice is ours.

Members discuss merits of different governance and funding models

Committee members viewed the legislation as well-intentioned, but some questioned the specifics, particularly the structure and function of Culberson’s proposed NASA Board of Directors. Johnson observed that this Board appears to be modeled in part after the National Science Board (NSB), the governing board of the National Science Foundation (NSF), but diverges from that structure in significant ways.

She noted that NSB members are nominated by the president and do not have any say in who the president chooses to serve as director of the Foundation. In contrast, only three of the 11 members of the NASA Board would be appointed by the president. Johnson also doubted that the Board could develop a detailed budget proposal without significant help from a large staff and expressed concern that the Board would not be held as accountable for their proposal.

As for the proposed ten-year term for the NASA administrator, Johnson pointed out that although the NSF director has a six-year term, only five of the last 15 Foundation directors served out the full term. Collins also expressed reservations about the term length, saying that it may be difficult to find people willing to serve such a long term. Griffin said that he had no objections to considering term lengths, although he remarked that “these kind of discussions are a symptom of…a lack of understanding at the top levels of government of the importance of our space program.”

Some members used the discussion of governance models to reflect on ways to address the broader challenge of sustaining investments in science and technology programs over multiple years. For example, Rep. Randy Hultgren (R-IL) introduced into the record a 2015 op-ed by former Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA)—Culberson’s predecessor on the appropriations subcommittee—and Norman Augustine, former CEO of Lockheed Martin, in which they advocate for creation of an “American Research Investment Fund.” Wolf and Augustine argue that this fund, administered by a non-profit entity and initially capitalized by tax revenue from repatriation of corporate funds, would “help fill the gap in high-risk/high-payoff basic research funding that federal budgetary strictures and long-term corporate constraints have created.”

Griffin offers scathing criticism of current U.S. space policy

Griffin, NASA administrator from 2005 to 2009, stated flatly that “our space policy is bankrupt” and quoted former Boeing executive Jim Albaugh saying “the current administration’s plan for space offers no dream, no vision, no plan, no budget, and no remorse.” Griffin also did not hold back in speaking his mind about the Office of Management and Budget (OMB):

Anything that can be done to ameliorate and control the influence of the OMB on the process would be welcome. The OMB is a haven for largely unelected, unappointed, not very well qualified staff who seek to exercise a level of power and control in their area that their accomplishments have not earned.

When asked by Space Subcommittee chairman Brian Babin (R-TX) about his thoughts on an international mission to establish a permanent human presence on the moon, Griffin replied “I believe that if god had wanted us to go to Mars he would have given us a moon to practice on.” Collins was also supportive of using the moon as a stepping stone to Mars, saying that “as a crewmember, I certainly would like to see the hardware tested on the moon’s surface first.”

Similar to a hearing on NASA’s human exploration proposals held earlier this month, the discussion at this hearing made clear that although there is still a consensus on Mars as an eventual destination for NASA, there is still disagreement on what the intermediate steps should be on our journey to the Red Planet.

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