House Authorizers Join Pro-NASA Chorus on Hill

House Authorizers Join Pro-NASA Chorus on Hill

Republicans and Democrats on the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee set aside their sharp partisan differences on other issues today and vowed to ensure that NASA receives the funding it needs to execute the programs Congress funded generously for FY2016.  While the hearing before the Space Subcommittee was not free of partisan barbs, overall it was used to praise NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and champion NASA’s space and aeronautics programs.

The President’s FY2017 request for NASA’s appropriated funding is $18.262 billion, about a $1 billion cut from the $19.285 billion Congress appropriated for FY2016.  It is displayed in NASA budget documents as a $19.025 billion request because it assumes $664 million will be moved from the “mandatory” side of the nation’s budget ledger into the “discretionary” account where NASA is funded, plus $100 million from a tax President Obama wants to levy on oil companies for a 21st Century Clean Transportation System initiative.

Space subcommittee chairman Brian Babin (R-TX) tried to explain to Bolden the consequences of attempting to use money from mandatory spending — the part of the budget that pays for Social Security, Medicare, and interest on the national debt, for example — but Bolden pleaded that he is not a “budgeteer” and the difference between mandatory and discretionary spending is beyond his grasp.   What matters to him, he said, is that the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) assured him that the request for NASA is $19.025 billion.   He added that if he had realized how generous Congress was going to be in FY2016 — the appropriation was $756 million above the President’s request — he would have asked for more in his negotiations with OMB.

Regardless of what the President requested, the Senate and House appropriations subcommittees that fund NASA, and this subcommittee, have all vowed to ensure that NASA gets the money it needs to proceed with the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion spacecraft, a robust planetary science program, and the other priorities Congress delineated for FY2016.   This committee is an authorizing committee that provides policy guidance and recommends funding levels, but actual funding is provided by appropriations committees.  (Its Senate counterpart, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, has not yet held a hearing on this budget request.)

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the top Democrat on the full committee, and Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), the top Democrat on the subcommittee, both expressed concern about NASA’s insistence that although it has committed to launching the first crewed mission of the Orion spacecraft, Exploration Mission-2 (EM-2), in 2023, it has an internal date of 2021 it is striving to meet using extra funding that Congress provided.  NASA’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel (ASAP) warned against such tactics in its most recent annual report.  It concludes that a 2021 launch date is unrealistic at the budget levels NASA projects and worries about the potential impact on safety if personnel feel pressure to meet the earlier schedule.  Bolden assured the subcommittee that safety is his first concern and he regularly interacts with ASAP.

Bolden is a former astronaut and a former member of ASAP.

For her part, Johnson assured Bolden that no matter who becomes the next President, Congress supports SLS (and Orion and commercial crew) so it is not necessary to make overly optimistic commitments now in order to get as much done as possible before the change in administrations.  Edwards asked Babin to hold a hearing specifically on the safety issue.

A partisan issue that did not escape the otherwise friendly spirit of the hearing today is NASA’s earth science program.  Full committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) complained that the request for earth science is more than the amount requested for astrophysics, the James Webb Space Telescope and heliophysics combined.   He and other Republicans insist that other government agencies should be funding earth science research while NASA focuses on human and robotic exploration of space.  Babin repeated assertions from earlier years that the funding for earth science is “disproportionate.”  

Congress has made clear in its appropriations bills that its priorities are SLS, Orion, and a robotic mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa.  Republicans and Democrats today criticized the President’s FY2017 budget requests for SLS and Orion, which are significant reductions from FY2016 levels.  Smith repeated what he has said at other hearings that the Obama Administration “continues to tie our astronauts’ feet to the ground.”  He also called the Administration’s Asteroid Retrieval Mission (ARM)  “uninspiring” and noted that NASA recently pushed out the date for launching the crewed portion of that mission until after the next President’s second term. 

NASA revealed earlier this month that it does not plan to launch the robotic part of ARM until 2021 and the crewed segment until 2026.

As for Europa, House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee chairman John Culberson (R-TX) is its leading advocate in Congress and has added significant amounts of money to NASA’s budget in the past three appropriations bills to force NASA to proceed with such a mission immediately even though NASA did not have it in its plans. Smith noted that the FY2017 request for Europa is a 90 percent reduction from the FY2016 funding level, which he called “incredibly disappointing.” 

Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), who represents the district that includes NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC), pressed NASA on which part of NASA is in charge of the Europa mission.  The Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), a Federally Funded Research and Development Center (FFRDC) operated for NASA under a contract with the California Institute of Technology (CalTech), is the acknowledged leader of the program.   Brooks challenged that, however, insisting that FFRDCs — which are contractors, not government entities — are precluded from serving as program managers.   Bolden replied that he would check on the law regarding FFRDCs, but noted that JPL has been the program lead on many NASA planetary science missions. 

MSFC advocates in Congress have successfully drawn NASA headquarters into assigning the program lead role on some science missions (including the Hubble Space Telescope) to MSFC, but preliminary work on Europa’s mission design has been done at JPL.

Meanwhile, Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-CO), continued his quest to get NASA to agree to send people to Mars in 2033.  He has a bumper sticker that says “2033 — We Can Do This” with a picture of Mars in the corner.   He and Smith authored an op-ed in the Denver Post last week advocating for the mission, which would take place during a planetary alignment where a round trip would require 18 months instead of 2-3 years.  Bolden praised the op-ed and Perlmutter’s “we can do it” bumper sticker.  The public does not hear often enough what we can do, Bolden said, only what we cannot.  “To have a Member of Congress who has a bumper sticker that says ‘we can do this.’ … The American public doesn’t see that enough. …  What young people … see and hear all the time is ‘we can’t do this, we are not a great nation.’ … That’s just bunk. We’re the greatest nation in the world….” 

Bolden has said at each of his budget hearings before Congress this
year that it is “likely” his last since a new President will take office
before the next budget is submitted.  The NASA Administrator is a
political position and usually, though not always, the Administrator
departs when the President’s term ends.  Today, Republicans and Democrats both praised Bolden’s service to the nation as a Marine and as NASA Administrator.  Bolden rose to the rank of Major General in the Marine Corps before retiring.  He has served as NASA Administrator since 2009.

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