Bolden Reassures on ISS, Defends ARM, Insists on Commercial Crew

Bolden Reassures on ISS, Defends ARM, Insists on Commercial Crew

At a hearing that was more lively than usual, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden reassured a House committee on Thursday that the International Space Station (ISS) will not be affected by current U.S.-Russian tensions and assertively defended the President’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) and the need for Congress to fully fund the commercial crew program.

The hearing was before the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee.  There was a wide range of questions, including a couple on the proposed termination of the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) that received considerable attention at a hearing on Wednesday.

The meat of this hearing, however, was a continuation of the debate over the future of the human spaceflight program.   By far the most interesting exchange concerned the relationship among ISS, commercial crew, the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion spacecraft.  Bolden argued that without ISS, medical research and technology development required before sending humans into deep space would not be possible.  If there is no ISS, he asserted, there is no need for SLS or Orion.

Congress and the Administration have argued over these programs since enactment of the 2010 NASA Authorization Act that set NASA on its current course of pursuing commercial crew as the Administration’s priority and building SLS and Orion as Congress’s priority.  With each Administration budget request since then, Congress argues that the Administration is favoring commercial crew over SLS/Orion and consequently adds money for SLS/Orion and cuts it for commercial crew.

This year is no exception, but the debate has a new twist – a growing sense of urgency to be able to “launch American astronauts from American soil on an American rocket” as the saying goes.  One might imagine that would mean increased congressional support for commercial crew to get it ready as soon as possible, but, instead, members of this subcommittee from both sides of the aisle continue to fight for SLS/Orion as the top priority.   (The budget requests for these programs are available in our FY2015 NASA Budget Request Fact Sheet.)

First, on the question of whether ISS is at risk because of the current geopolitical climate, Bolden insisted repeatedly that he does not believe it is.   He said that NASA and its Russian counterpart, Roscosmos, talk every day and the two countries are mutually dependent to keep ISS operating.   “Russia has one thing we need – access,” Bolden said, while Russia needs NASA’s electrical power, communications and navigation systems.   Russia cannot operate the ISS without NASA, he maintained.

The United States is dependent on Russia for access to the ISS because the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011 with no U.S. system to replace it.   The commercial crew program is striving to develop systems that NASA currently hopes will be ready by 2017, but that depends on Congress providing the requisite funding.  In response to a question from subcommittee chairman Steve Palazzo (R-MS), Bolden said that “this committee, this Congress, chose to rely on Russia” by deciding not to fully fund the commercial crew request in prior years – “you can’t have it both ways.”

The discussion broadened as the hearing progressed to encompass the connection between commercial crew and access to the ISS in low Earth orbit (LEO) and plans for human exploration beyond LEO.  Although he had made the same point earlier, it came to a head after Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) asked about the consequences if Russia stops transporting U.S. astronauts to the ISS.  After restating that he does not think that will happen, Bolden said that if it did, the ISS probably would have to be shut down and “I will go to the President and recommend that we terminate SLS and Orion because without the International Space Station I have no vehicle to do the [necessary] medical tests and technology development and we’re fooling everybody that we can go to deep space if the International Space Station is not there.  …  I don’t want anyone to think I need SLS or Orion if I don’t have the International Space Station.”

As the back and forth continued – with Brooks asking if the ISS could be resuscitated if it were shut down (Bolden said he would provide an answer for the record later) – Bolden exclaimed “there is no either/or in terms SLS and Orion and commercial crew… If I don’t have commercial crew and I can’t get to low Earth orbit, I don’t need SLS and Orion…. if I can’t get to low Earth orbit, there is no exploration program.”

Assuming the exploration program continues, the Obama Administration is still trying to gain support for its Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).   Bolden assiduously defended ARM at the hearing, though he did not appear to win over many committee members. In fact, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), the top Democrat on the subcommittee, used her opening statement to clarify recent remarks she made that many interpreted as indicating that she now supports ARM.  In her statement, she said that she still has many questions about it.

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the full committee, contends that ARM has no realistic budget, no destination (in terms of a specific asteroid), or certain launch date, and is not part of a larger exploration roadmap.  Edwards voiced similar concerns.   Bolden’s message was that ARM is a “proving ground” in cislunar space (between the Earth and the Moon) as a steppingstone to Mars.  He presented a chart to which he referred many times that lays out the steps to Mars showing how ARM fits within a bigger picture.

Graphic used by Administrator Bolden at the March 27, 2014 House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing.   Source:  NASA

A webcast of the hearing, member opening statements and Bolden’s prepared statement are available on the committee’s Republican and Democratic websites.

A note to those who may be confused about the amount of NASA’s FY2015 budget request:   Some subcommittee members referenced an $18.3 billion budget request, while Bolden and everyone else discussed a $17.5 billion request.  The difference is $886 million the President included for NASA in his Opportunities, Growth and Security Initiative (OGSI).   The $17.5 billion request is called NASA’s “base” budget and conforms with the budget caps Obama and Congress agreed to in December.   The OGSI is a separate request for $56 billion across the government above those caps, including $886 million for NASA.   If the OGSI request for NASA is added to the base budget request, it’s $18.3 billion.  For more information, see our FY2015 NASA Budget Request Fact Sheet.

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