Culberson Promises NASA Resources It Needs Despite Tough Budget Year

Culberson Promises NASA Resources It Needs Despite Tough Budget Year

The chairman of the House appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA, Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), said he is baffled by why the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) did not request adequate funding for NASA in FY2017 and vowed to give the agency the “resources that you need” even though it will “a tough budget year.”  During a very friendly hearing today, the biggest surprise was Culberson’s suggestion that NASA’s Ames Research Center be converted into a Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC) like the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). 

The President is requesting an appropriation of $18.262 billion for FY2017, a cut of about $1 billion from the $19.285 billion Congress appropriated for FY2016.  NASA’s budget documents show a request of $19.025 billion because it includes $763 million from other sources: $664 million the White House wants to shift from mandatory spending (the budget category that includes Social Security and Medicare, for example) plus $100 million from a tax the President is proposing to levy on oil companies for a 21st Century Clean Transportation System initiative.  Congress has already rejected both ideas.   Even if that money were available, the President’s request is a $260 million cut from FY2016.

Culberson and ranking Democrat Mike Honda (D-CA) both expressed dissatisfaction with the request at a hearing before the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee.  Culberson said it was “baffling” that OMB did not request the level of funding NASA “deserves” considering how much the nation supports NASA.  He vowed that “this subcommittee will make sure that you get the resources that you need. Again, this is going to be a tough budget year and we will be right there behind you, sir, every step of the way.”  Honda joked that he loved it when the chairman talks about getting NASA more money — “sounds just like a great Democrat.”  More seriously, he said NASA is not a partisan issue, but a national priority as demonstrated by the level of funding NASA received from Congress last year:  “This is a time to be investing in NASA, not selling it short.”

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden defended the request and insisted that it is $19.025 billion, not $18.262 billion.  He said he is not disappointed by it and, indeed, “helped craft it.”  He also expressed appreciation for the subcommittee’s “strong and consistent support.”

Two key topics at the hearing were the Space Launch System (SLS) and a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa. 

Culberson is passionate about the Europa mission.  In addition to allocating $175 million for the mission (the request was $30 million) in FY2016, he included language requiring NASA to build a lander as well as an orbiter and to launch them in 2022 using SLS.  He also directed NASA to create an “Oceans Worlds” program for exploring solar system bodies that have oceans, which include not only Europa, but Saturn’s moons Enceladus and Titan.   Culberson held a hearing specifically about the Ocean Worlds program on March 3 where JPL Director Charles Elachi and Cornell space scientist Jonathan Lunine testified.  Elachi noted that Mars may have had an ocean in the past, too.

The directive to build a lander as well as an orbiter is controversial because of the additional costs that would be incurred and the technical challenges involved.   Today Bolden cautioned that the best approach would be to follow the traditional pattern for NASA’s planetary exploration pursuits by first sending an orbiter to obtain detailed information and then a lander.  He estimated that it would take 2 years to map Europa’s surface sufficiently to determine the best landing site.  Another concern is launching an orbiter-lander combination on a single launch vehicle such as SLS since that would risk both spacecraft.   Launching the two separately could solve both problems — sending the orbiter first and the lander later.   Bolden said the decision on how to proceed would be made at the time of the mission’s Preliminary Design Review (PDR) in 2018, but “my strong recommendation is that we separate them to optimize the chances of being successful with both.” 

As for SLS itself, subcommittee members sought assurances that the first and second SLS launches, Exploration Mission-1 (EM-1) and EM-2, will take place on time.  EM-1 will launch an Orion spacecraft, but no crew will be aboard.  EM-2 will be the first SLS/Orion launch to carry astronauts. 

Congress routinely adds money for SLS above the President’s request.  For FY2016, NASA requested $1.4 billion and Congress provided $2 billion.  For FY2017, NASA  is requesting $1.3 billion.

NASA has committed to launching EM-1 in 2018 and EM-2 in 2023, but Bolden repeatedly says that NASA is working towards a 2021 launch for EM-2 using the additional money Congress provides.   Today he stressed that NASA is looking not just at those two launches, but at all the launches needed over the next decade for the “Proving Ground” phase of deep space human exploration in cis-lunar space.  NASA plans several SLS/Orion launches to the vicinity of the Moon to test systems and human adaptation to long duration flight further from Earth than the relative safety of low Earth orbit.   Bolden said that any money Congress provides above the request would be spent on buying down risk and buying long lead items for the program as a whole, not just EM-1 and EM-2, but it could lead to an EM-2 launch date earlier than 2023.

Not everyone was enthusiastic about SLS.  Honda asked Bolden to respond to a statement by former Johnson Space Center (JSC) Director Chris Kraft that SLS operating costs would “eat NASA alive” and it will not be reliable at the expected launch rate of only once per year.  Kraft wondered why existing launch vehicles could not be used to launch spacecraft segments that could be assembled on orbit.  Bolden, a former astronaut based at JSC, emotionally referred to Kraft as a role model, mentor and “incredible human being,” but argued that times have changed since Kraft was in charge.   “I have a team around me that he didn’t have, a very mature leadership team” compared to the relative youth of those at NASA when Kraft was there.

Congress also added money last year for NASA to build a large Exploration (or Enhanced) Upper Stage (EUS) for SLS to ensure it is ready in time for EM-2.   EUS will be needed for the SLS/Orion missions after EM-2 and must be human-rated since all those missions will carry crews.  NASA is currently building a less-capable Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage (ICPS) for EM-1.  Since there is no crew on EM-1, ICPS does not need to be human-rated for that flight, but would be if it is also used for EM-2.  EUS advocates argue that it is more cost effective to accelerate EUS development so it is ready for EM-2 than to human-rate ICPS for just the EM-2 mission.  Bolden assured the subcommittee that NASA is spending the FY2016 EUS funding as directed, but the agency is not requesting any EUS funds for FY2017.  Rep. David Jolly (R-FL) asked if FY2017 funding is required for EUS to be ready for EM-2.   Bolden replied that he is optimistic that NASA can get it ready in time if the agency stays within the President’s FY2017 request, but said he would provide a more thorough answer for the record.

Another topic that arose was NASA’s adherence to restrictions on activities with China. This subcommittee originated the language that prohibits NASA from interacting with China unless it certifies to Congress in advance that the interactions will not result in technology transfer or involve individuals directly involved in violating human rights.  Culberson has promised to vigorously enforce that provision, which is section 531 of the current (FY2016) appropriations law.  Bolden assured him that NASA investigates every Chinese official NASA plans to meet with using a third-party tool, Visual Compliance, that searches a number of databases.  Bolden added that he plans to meet with FBI Director James Comey to ensure these procedures are effective in meeting the Section 531 requirements.  (The FBI is also under the jurisdiction of this subcommittee.)

Separately, Culberson raised the prospect of turning NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, CA into a Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC) potentially operated by a university such as nearby Stanford.   It would follow the model of JPL, an FFRDC operated for NASA by the California Institute of Technology (CalTech).  JPL therefore is a contractor, not a government entity, which gives it more flexibility in personnel and other matters.  NASA’s other nine centers around the country are part of the government and there have been suggestions over the years to turn them all into FFRDCs, but there are advantages and disadvantages and it is not clear that the FFRDC model would offer any cost savings, for example. 

Today, Bolden eschewed the idea of turning Ames into an FFDRC.  He cited studies by the National Academies and a review he himself was on of the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Lawrence Livermore Lab.  DOE has many FFRDCs and Bolden said that review showed that each DOE lab is an “entity unto its own.”  By contrast, as NASA Administrator, he sets the direction for NASA as a whole and the NASA centers follow his lead so “we’re all going in that direction.”   “I would be leery” of NASA having more than one FFRDC, he said, praising the work that Ames does now as a government facility.

Honda was clearly surprised by Culberson’s suggestion.  His congressional district includes a portion of Ames.   It is an interesting question, he said, but “came out of right field for me,” and needs further discussion.

Correction:  An earlier version of this article stated that Rep. Honda’s district is next door to Ames.  In fact, a portion of Ames is in his district.  The remainder is in Rep. Anna Eshoo’s district.

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