House Appropriators Unenthusiastic About NASA's New Plan

House Appropriators Unenthusiastic About NASA's New Plan

Presidential Science Adviser John Holdren was busy testifying on Capitol Hill yesterday about the federal R&D budget, including NASA. In the morning he appeared before the House Science and Technology Committee, and in the afternoon before the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee.

The appropriations hearing revealed the positions being taken by NASA’s appropriators, the Members of Congress who are most directly involved in deciding how much money NASA will get for FY2011. While many of NASA’s authorizers have been quite vocal in reacting to the plan in NASA’s FY2011 budget request – almost all somewhere between skeptical and strongly opposed – less has been known publicly about the appropriators. (Not sure of the difference between authorizers and appropriators? See our “What’s a Markup?” fact sheet.)

Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), chair of the Senate CJS subcommittee, laid out her core principles in a letter last week and the ranking member of that subcommittee, Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), has not been shy about his strong support for Constellation and skepticism about commercial crew. Apart from that, however, the only hint has been the three Republican House CJS appropriators (Aderholt, R-AL; Bonner, R-AL; and Culberson, R-TX) who were among the 27 House Members who signed a letter to NASA warning that the agency might be violating the law by taking actions to terminate Constellation before Congress has given it permission to do so.

Yesterday, it became clear that many of the House appropriators are just as unenthusiastic as the authorizers. According to a summary in Space News (subscription required), subcommittee chairman Alan Mollohan (D-WV) complained about the lack of detail in NASA’s budget request about the proposal, and cited concerns by many in Congress that the plan relegates the United States to second place in human spaceflight. Two other Democrats, C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger (D-MD) and Adam Schiff (D-CA), also expressed doubts about the human spaceflight elements of the budget request even though Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland and the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Schiff’s district both stand to gain from increased funding for robotic space science and exploration missions.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), ranking member of the CJS subcommittee, complained that the plan appears to have been “hastily developed without proper vetting from NASA’s scientific, engineering and human spaceflight experts” and that the President himself has been silent about it. According to the Space News account, Wolf also was highly irritated by the expressions on the “smug” faces of three White House staff members sitting behind Dr. Holdren saying that “you really bring a degree of arrogance here that is just almost offensive.”

Wolf’s opening statement incorporates quotes from a variety of experts including Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites, former astronauts and NASA officials (including former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin), and James Lewis from CSIS. Perhaps most interesting is Rutan’s objection to the commercial crew concept. A strident critic of NASA and champion for commercial space activities – including his own SpaceShipOne, which won the Ansari X-Prize – Rutan is quoted by Wolf as saying that while an observer might assume that he would applaud NASA’s decision “he would be wrong.” Among Rutan’s criticisms is that “Manned spaceflight and exploration is one of the last remaining fields in which the U.S. maintains an undeniable competitive advantage over other nations. To walk away is shortsighted and irresponsible.”

Rep. Aderholt posted his opening statement on his website saying he is strongly opposed to what he called a “reckless” plan that “could cripple U.S. human spaceflight for an unknown number of years.”

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