Bolden Reassures Appropriators on Russia; Culberson Wants Interstellar Propulsion

Bolden Reassures Appropriators on Russia; Culberson Wants Interstellar Propulsion

At a House hearing today (March 4), NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden was asked about contingency plans if Russia stops launching U.S. astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).  He underscored again and again the need for Congress to fully fund the commercial crew program.

The hearing before the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee covered familiar ground and produced few surprises.  Subcommittee chairman John Culberson (R-TX), an unabashed NASA supporter who just became chairman following the retirement of Frank Wolf, started the hearing by asserting that Congress will not be able to fund President Obama’s overall budget request for the nation “because it assumes a lot of tax increases that certainly aren’t going to happen,” but that the subcommittee will do all it can to support NASA.  NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden defended the President’s request for his agency.

Perhaps the most interesting exchanges concerned the future of the ISS and whatever will come thereafter.  One set of issues involves U.S. dependence on Russia for launching astronauts to the ISS today, another concerns recent Russian statements that it will support ISS through 2024 and then detach its modules to form an autonomous space station, and a third is U.S. plans for what comes after ISS.

Bolden was asked what contingency plans NASA has if Russia decides not to launch U.S. astronauts to ISS because of the current geopolitical situation.  He stressed that the only plan is to fully fund the President’s $1.244 billion request for the commercial crew program.  He assured the subcommittee that he is confident Boeing and SpaceX will meet their milestones and provide operational systems by the 2017 target date.

Pressed on the point of contingency plans, Bolden reiterated that relationships between NASA and Roscosmos remain strong and Russia needs NASA to operate the ISS, but if the Russians decided they no longer were interested in space exploration, the ISS can be evacuated in an orderly manner:  “You are forcing me into this answer, and I like to give you real answers … but if the nations of the world decided that human exploration is done, we have the capability to bring all six crewmembers home. … I don’t anticipate that that day is going to come.”  He continued that he is “not worried about getting people to the space station as long as the Congress funds the President’s budget at $1.2 billion in 2016 because we will have an American capability” to do that.

Culberson continue to bore in on NASA’s contingency planning, but Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA) intervened saying that Congress must “own” the current situation because it did not provide adequate funding.  As Bolden pointed out once more, if Congress had done so, commercial crew would be ready this year rather than 2017.  Culberson shot back that if the Constellation program had not been canceled, “we would have been ready to fly within 12 months.” Bolden retorted “That is not correct…whoever told you that, that is not correct.”

Russian officials announced last week that Russia will remain in the ISS partnership through 2024, but then will detach its modules to form its own space station.   The announcement was made on February 24 by the Roscosmos Science and Technology Council, chaired by Yuri Koptev, who once headed the predecessor to Roscosmos and was integral in working with then NASA Administrator Dan Goldin as Russia joined the ISS program in 1993.  Somewhat lost in U.S. media reports is that the modules they said they will detach have not yet been launched (a multipurpose laboratory module, a docking node, and a scientific power module), so they are not proposing to take away anything that is currently part of the ISS complex.  In any case, Bolden urged caution in evaluating what the Russians said because “what you hear coming out of Russia is not always what they intended to say,” but he is encouraged by the stated intention to remain with ISS through 2024.

As for what LEO facilities will come after ISS, Bolden focused on the need for the private sector to make those decisions.  He said that a NASA request for information produced disappointing results, however, because those who responded just wanted NASA to continue funding LEO infrastructure.  Bolden noted the efforts of Bigelow Aerospace as the type of effort that is required.  Bigelow launched two test modules on Russian rockets several years ago that are still in orbit. Another will be attached to the ISS this year.  (He lightheartedly noted that Robert Bigelow, the millionaire behind Bigelow Aerospace, insists that the modules are “expandable,” not “inflatable” as they often are described.)  Bolden hopes other companies will buy modules from Bigelow or build their own.

There was one surprise, at least.   Culberson closed the hearing with a clarion call for NASA to develop interstellar propulsion, not a topic that typically arises in NASA budget hearings.

At the very end, Culberson brought up the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), for which NASA is developing high power solar electric propulsion to send a robotic spacecraft to an asteroid to nudge it from its native orbit into lunar orbit so it can be visited by astronauts.  Culberson contended today that the “great value” of ARM is the development of new propulsion — but his goal is for travel to other stars.

Explaining what he hopes will be his legacy for the space program, he listed a robust LEO capability, SLS and Orion for human exploration beyond LEO, a robotic program that follows the recommendations of the National Research Council’s Decadal Surveys, and a propulsion system that allows spacecraft to explore exoplanets.

“The fact that we are still flying rocket engines that were designed by Robert Goddard in the 1920’s is just inexcusable. ….  Let us also leave for future generations the development of the first interstellar rocket propulsion system that would carry us to Alpha Centauri and beyond… to go explore those exoplanets that are most like Earth, which appear to be much more common than we ever realized.”

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