Bolden Steadfastly Defends New NASA Plan

Bolden Steadfastly Defends New NASA Plan

For a second day in a row, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden faced congressional authorizers largely unhappy with the new direction of the U.S. human space flight program. Yesterday he testified before the Senate Commerce subcommittee that authorizes NASA activities; today he appeared before the full House Science and Technology Committee.

In both hearings, some committee members opened the door for Bolden to distance himself from the decision to cancel Constellation, but Bolden insisted that he was deeply involved in the discussions. At one point, he emphatically stated that “we did not frivolously arrive at this budget.” He declined to provide information on the pre-decisional meetings despite repeated attempts by committee members to obtain details on the process and people involved.

Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) was the only Member at today’s hearing who expressed support for the decision to rely on the commercial sector to provide commercial human space flight services (“commercial crew”) to low Earth orbit in the future. Many other Members, Democrats and Republicans, expressed deep skepticism about the ability of commercial companies to provide such services without considerable government investments. Committee chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) asked if the proposal would not make the companies offering such services “too important to fail” – analogous to the “too big to fail” financial institutions the government is now bailing out. Is there really a non-government market for human space flight, or will these companies become “wards of the state,” he asked.

Bolden replied that NASA had not performed any of its own market analyses, relying on those of the industry. Rep. Gordon called that “the fox guarding the chicken house” and chided Bolden for an “unsatisfactory” answer. More broadly, Bolden defended the commercial crew concept by reminding Members that in the early 1980s NASA sought to turn operation of the space shuttle over to a commercial provider. The 1986 space shuttle Challenger tragedy ended those efforts, at least in part because the Reagan Administration decided that human lives no longer would be risked to launch satellites that could as easily be launched on rockets, consequently making the shuttle considerably less attractive as a commercial venture. “What we’re trying to do today, we were trying to do then,” he said.

The impact on jobs and the aerospace workforce were a consistent focus of questioning. Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT) challenged the assertion that the President and NASA want to encourage children to study math and science because they were giving “pink slips” to the very people who had invested their lives in pursuing those careers: “This is not a program for a bold new path, it’s more like managing America’s decline.”

The lack of a specific destination beyond low Earth orbit in the President’s new plan was another bone of contention as it was yesterday. In both cases Bolden stated that in his mind Mars is the ultimate destination, although today he did not repeat – perhaps because he was not directly asked – that he had approval from the White House to state that on behalf of the Administration.

Several Members pointed to concerns about the United States losing its leadership in human space flight. Rep. Parker Griffith (R-AL) stressed that “It’s not about jobs. The heart and soul of America is NASA. If we do anything, anything, to detract from that, we’re gong to lose and we can’t afford to lose.”

A summary of the hearing will be posted soon.

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