Bolden Defends ARM, Earth Science, American Preeminence at House Hearing

Bolden Defends ARM, Earth Science, American Preeminence at House Hearing

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden spent two hours this morning defending the Obama Administration’s FY2016 budget request for the agency before a House subcommittee.  Perhaps the most contentious moment came during a debate between Bolden and Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) who was arguing that America has lost its preeminence in human spaceflight.  Bolden forcefully countered that he just returned from the Space Symposium and no one there had such a low opinion of NASA and the United States:  “We are the preeminent leader in the world. Always have been, always will be.”

The exchange took place as part of Brooks’ proposition that the approximately $2 billion NASA spends on earth science should be reallocated to NASA’s other space and aeronautics programs and the earth science activities be transferred to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).  Bolden strongly defended the earth science component of NASA’s program as part of a balanced portfolio.

Brooks, who represents Marshall Space Flight Center, contended that more money is needed to support human exploration because, since the end of the space shuttle program, America has had to “hitch a ride” with the Russians to the International Space Station (ISS) and thus lost its preeminence.   Bolden’s rejoinder that no one at the Space Symposium would agree with that assessment did not persuade Brooks:  “When Russia is reducing the United States of America to saying if we want to go to the space station we can do it by a trampoline, that’s not the kind of preeminence I’m accustomed to, having seen the Saturn V rocket built … in the 5th congressional district of Alabama.”

Other Republican subcommittee members also argued against NASA’s earth science funding.  The discussion followed the familiar lines expressed by committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) and others at least since 2013 that 13 federal agencies are involved in climate change/earth science research, while NASA uniquely is responsible for space exploration.  Therefore NASA should focus on its unique role of exploration and shift earth science to the other agencies.

The hearing on NASA’s FY2016 budget request was held before the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee today.  Generally speaking, members of both parties criticized the request.

The Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) was one key topic, both in terms of why Bolden is ignoring advice from the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) and more broadly about where it fits into the longer term plan for human exploration of Mars.

Bolden was grilled by subcommittee chairman Steve Palazzo (R-MS) and committee chairman Smith on why he was ignoring NAC’s advice to (1) obtain an independent cost evaluation (ICE) of ARM prior to the Mission Concept Review (which just took place), and (2) modify it so that its primary objective is demonstration of high power solar electric propulsion rather than obtaining a sample of an asteroid, and to send the spacecraft to Mars and back rather than to an asteroid.  Bolden replied that he is not changing ARM’s objectives because he is committed to “constancy of purpose” and will do an ICE now that the Mission Concept Review is completed.  Palazzo warned that “without consensus in the scientific, exploration and international communities, not to mention the people here on Capitol Hill, I think you will be challenged” on ARM.

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) focused on the fact that NASA has not provided a roadmap for the human exploration program and how ARM fits into it.  She argued that the committee needs to know why NASA is choosing various options instead of simply being told what it is going to do without any communications.

Edwards, the top Democrat on the subcommittee, also pressed Bolden on why the budget request cuts funds for programs the Administration knows are congressional priorities, such as the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft, aeronautics, and the Europa mission. “Part of me thinks it’s a game,” she said.    Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the top Democrat on the full committee, asked why NASA was ignoring the advice of the National Research Council (NRC) in its “Pathways” report last year.  The report provided “unambiguous” advice that NASA needs more funding to achieve the goal of sending people to Mars, so “it came as a bit of a shock to me that the very next  budget request” cuts funding for SLS and Orion.  That is “directly counter” to the NRC’s advice and “Congress needs to correct that.”

Bolden insisted it was all a matter of priorities.  He repeated several times that he believes the budget request for SLS and Orion will enable the agency to meet the milestones it has promised. Regarding Europa, he said he knows the planetary science community wants to launch that spacecraft in 2022, but “it can’t be done in that time frame.” In an unrelated exchange later in the hearing, he said he thinks Europa could be launched in 2029, but it was clear he was not committing to that date.

Palazzo and Smith repeated their criticism of NASA’s decision to fund two commercial crew companies instead of one and using SLS/Orion as the redundant capability if it is needed.  The 2010 NASA authorization act requires NASA to design SLS/Orion so it can service the ISS in case the commercial crew concept did not result in viable systems.  Rep. Bill Johnson (R-OH) asked if NASA could downselect to just one of the two companies and thereby accelerate when a commercial crew system would be ready.  Bolden said no, and choosing only one company could actually slow the program because that company would become a “monopoly that dictates to me what it can or can’t do.”

Many other topics were discussed (a webcast of the hearing is available on the committee’s website) that covered familiar ground.  The overall thrust was that Republicans and Democrats are unhappy with the budget request because it cuts programs that the Administration knows are congressional priorities and does not lay out a roadmap for human exploration.   Republicans also disagree with the funding for earth science because that should not be a NASA priority.

Bolden testified to the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee on the FY2016 budget request later in the day.

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