Bolden Will Do Everything in My Power to Make Commercial Launch Companies Succeed

Bolden Will Do Everything in My Power to Make Commercial Launch Companies Succeed

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden told the Senate Commerce Committee today that he will do “everything in my power” to ensure that the commercial launch companies at the heart of President Obama’s new plan for NASA succeed. The magnitude of that commitment was the source of some contention at the hearing.

Senator David Vitter (R-LA) asked Gen. Bolden if he had said in a telephone briefing to Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan last week that he would “do whatever it takes” to make the commercial option work including “bailing them out” even if that meant “a bigger bailout than Chrysler and GM.” Bolden responded that he did not recall saying those words, but had always said that he would do “everything in my power” to make commercial access to low Earth orbit successful because he needs it, the defense department needs it, and the intelligence community needs it: “I have to look at the possibility that the commercial sector will have difficulty” and “I will do everything in my power to facilitate their success.” However, he insisted that he did not remember saying the words Senator Vitter quoted.

Testifying later in the hearing, Captain Cernan revealed that those quotes were from his notes. Cernan said that Bolden expressed concern during the telephone briefing about the commercial sector’s ability to succeed and said the government might have to subsidize them significantly and it “may be a bailout like GM and Chrysler, as a matter of fact it may be the largest bailout in history.” Cernan told the committee that he had written the word “Wow” in the margin of his notes at that statement.

The degree to which the government would be dependent on the commercial companies is one of the major objections to President Obama’s plan to turn responsibility for crew and cargo missions to low Earth orbit over to the commercial sector. At a February hearing before the House Science and Technology Committee, for example, Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) asked if it would make those companies “too important to fail,” akin to the financial companies that received government bailouts because they were “too big to fail.”

President Obama’s plan has been the subject of many op-ed articles and congressional hearings, so the viewpoints of most of the Senators and witnesses at the hearing already were well known. However, Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) made it clear that the issues that have concerned him about NASA over many years remain. They include fundamental philosophical questions such as why human spaceflight is necessary and how it helps the “human condition,” as well as more prosaic questions about NASA’s management abilities. While his statements were not quite a ringing endorsement of the Obama plan, he made it clear that he thinks NASA has to change.

Famed Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the Moon, focused on the lack of analysis that went into developing the Obama plan and rued what he sees as the U.S. abandoning its leadership in space: “If the leadership we have acquired through our investment is simply allowed to fade away, other nations will surely step in where we have faltered. I do not believe that would be in our best interest.” Cernan, who commaned the final Apollo mission to the Moon, called the plan “a blueprint for a mission to nowhere.”

Armstrong and Cernan said that there are rumors that neither Presidential Science Adviser Holdren nor NASA Administrator Bolden knew the plan in advance. Holdren and Bolden were asked about this during their appearance on the previous panel, and both dismissed such talk, insisting that they did know at least two weeks prior to the budget release what it would contain.

Norm Augustine explained once again that his committee developed options rather than making recommendations, but agreed that the President’s plan is close to the committee’s option 5B. He added that one significant difference is that his committee felt the human spaceflight budget had to increase by $3 billion over the next four years and by inflation thereafter, and “we could find no interesting human spaceflight program” for less than that. The President’s proposal does not provide that level of funding. Mr. Augustine stressed that NASA’s “goals [must] match the budget” or 10 years from now this same discussion will be held again.

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