House Hearing Generates Heat, But Bolden Stays on Message — Fund Commercial Crew – UPDATE

House Hearing Generates Heat, But Bolden Stays on Message — Fund Commercial Crew – UPDATE

In a combative hearing today (April 8, 2014)  before the House appropriations subcommittee that funds his agency, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden displayed anger and exasperation, but stayed on message – NASA needs full funding for the commercial crew program this year.

In a break with tradition, the annual hearing before the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee on NASA’s budget request was not solely focused on the budget.   The first hour of today’s three-and-a-half hour hearing was devoted to a report by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) on security at NASA and its field centers.   CJS subcommittee chairman Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) essentially told NASA to commission the study last year because of his concerns about the access that foreign nationals, especially Chinese, have to NASA facilities.

The NAPA committee was chaired by former Attorney General and former Pennsylvania Governor Richard Thornburgh.  It issued 27 recommendations and, as Thornburgh testified today, NASA agrees with and is implementing all of them.   Nevertheless, Wolf and other subcommittee members used the opportunity to criticize NASA, especially its decision to categorize the report as “Sensitive but Unclassified” (SBU) so that it cannot be made public.  Only a short summary is in the public domain.

Subcommittee member John Culberson (R-TX), rumored to be in line to take over chairmanship of the subcommittee after Wolf retires at the end of the year, charged that NASA gave it an SBU classification because it was “embarrassing.”

When it was Bolden’s turn to testify, he denied that characterization.  He insisted the report revealed potential vulnerabilities at NASA that he did not want made public.   Wolf called the SBU classification a “blunt instrument” and wondered why NASA could not have redacted potentially damaging information and released the rest of the report.  It was a bruising exchange and Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA) made it a point to elaborate on Bolden’s decades of public service as a military pilot, astronaut, and U.S. Marine Corps Major General to make it clear that Bolden is committed to protecting the nation’s security.

The next two-and-a-half hours were no less confrontational, however.   Many, many topics were covered, but by far the most contentious was debate over NASA’s commercial crew program.   Bolden is laser focused on convincing Congress to fund the full $848 million request for commercial crew this year.   The debate has special significance now because of the tense geopolitical relationship between the United States and Russia.   While the International Space Station (ISS) is not affected by last week’s Administration policy decision to limit U.S.-Russian interactions – the ISS is specifically exempted – NASA is using the situation to drive home the need for American systems to take American astronauts to and from the ISS so NASA is not dependent on Russia.

Bolden stated his understanding of how much money Congress has approved for commercial crew in the past several years compared to the request.  Wolf had different numbers and challenged Bolden’s account.  The two threw down the gauntlet to each other to meet, with their staffs, to sort out whose numbers are correct, but the exchange became quite personal.

Wolf accused Bolden of misleading people about Congress’s support for commercial crew.  At that point – after the hour of listening to criticism of how NASA handles foreign access to its centers and now hearing Wolf accuse him of misleading people – Bolden clearly had had enough.  “I’m tired of having my integrity impugned,” he exclaimed.  Though the discussion briefly moved on to another topic, Bolden was still smarting.  After answering an unrelated question about the James Webb Space Telescope he said “If someone’s going to call me a liar, I take that personally.”

Wolf replied that no one had called Bolden a liar.  After a few more minutes of unrelated discussion, Bolden apologized for losing his temper.  [UPDATE:  At a hearing the next day with Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, Wolf also swore her in while assuring her that his decision to do so had nothing to do with her or her Department.  Instead he referenced this hearing, saying that “maybe everything wasn’t as accurate as was said… I think it’s important that there be integrity when people come up; they just tell … the truth. …. I’m going to send members information so you can see what I’m talking about and that’s why we swear people in….”]

Throughout it all, however, Bolden kept his eye on the ball – insisting on the need for full funding of the request for commercial crew to reduce U.S. dependence on Russia.

Some of the other substantive topics of discussion included the following.

  • Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).   Wolf asked when NASA would have a final mission concept and associated budget plan for Congress to review.  Bolden said it was still too early.  Wolf commented that ARM has not generated very much excitement, including with potential international partners.  Bolden referred to last year’s Global Exploration Roadmap (GER) produced by 12 countries, including the United States, and to the International Space Exploration Forum (ISEF) at the State Department in January as examples of how everyone is on the same page – Mars is the ultimate destination with a steppingstone approach to get there that could include the asteroid mission.
  • Russia and the ISS.   Culberson pressed Bolden on NASA’s contingency plans for the ISS in case Russia invades more of Ukraine.  Bolden reiterated what he has said in other venues that he does not want to speculate on hypothetical situations, but his contingency plan is commercial crew – restoring America’s ability to launch American astronauts from American soil rather than being dependent on Russia.  This was another confrontational exchange.   Culberson referenced an Aviation Week article that talked about an Air Force estimate that it would take 5 years and $1 billion to build a production facility in the United States to build RD-180 rocket engines for the Atlas V rocket that currently come from Russia.  He wanted to know what NASA’s equivalent contingency plan is for the ISS.  Bolden stressed again and again that his contingency plan is commercial crew.   Culberson said two of the commercial crew competitors plan to use the Atlas V. [Sierra Nevada Corporation and Boeing both plan to use Atlas V for Dream Chaser and CST-100, respectively.]  Bolden clearly did not know that and impatiently responded that Culberson was not accepting his answer that NASA’s ISS contingency plan is commercial crew.
  • Restrictions on NASA’s Interactions with Russia.   Bolden announced that two more activities – in addition to ISS — have been exempted from limits on interactions with Russia:   NASA participation in the COSPAR meeting in August being held in Moscow and operations of a Russian instrument (DAN) on the Mars Curiosity rover.  He said three more requests are pending.    The ISS was never included in the restrictions.
  • ISS Extension to 2024.   Bolden acknowledged that Russia is the only ISS partner that has agreed to extending operations to 2024.   He is confident the other partners eventually will agree, but it will be a multi-year process.
  • Aeronautics.   Everyone agreed that NASA’s aeronautics program is vital to the nation and needs more funding.  Bolden singled out hypersonics and rotary wing research as especially important, but does not know how to fund it within current constraints.
  • SOFIA.  Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA), whose district is near NASA Ames Research Center, which runs the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) program, challenged the decision in the President’s budget request to mothball the airplane-mounted infrared telescope.   Bolden insisted, as did Presidential Science Adviser John Holdren at a House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing on March 26, that it is only a proposal at this point, not a decision: “we are still looking for ways to save SOFIA.” He is anticipating a report at the end of this month from a joint committee between NASA and its German counterpart, DLR, on options for moving forward. NASA also has issued a solicitation for other partners who want to help fund the project.  If SOFIA is as important as scientists say, Bolden asserted, he expects “people will be standing in line to add their funds to maintain SOFIA.”
  • Europa.  Culberson continue to champion funding for a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa.  He has led efforts to add money for it in the past two years ($75 million in FY2013 and $80 million in FY2014).  NASA is requesting $15 million for FY2015, but there is no money planned for future years, so it is not a new program start and Culberson thinks $15 million is too little.   Separately there was a discussion about using the Space Launch System (SLS) to launch a spacecraft to Europa. Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) argued for building a “robust” upper stage that would make it useful for such a mission.   Bolden demurred on that part of the discussion (because a choice first needs to be made between developing the upper stage or an advanced booster), but said the scientific community is just warming up to the idea of using SLS for a Europa mission.
  • Mars 2020.   Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), whose district includes the Jet Propulsion Lab, worried about a “disquieting” rumor that the Mars 2020 rover mission might slip to 2022.  Bolden assured him the FY2015 request assumes launch in 2020.
  • Extended Science Missions.  Schiff also is concerned that older operating spacecraft like the Opportunity rover on Mars and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) will not receive funding for extended operations beyond their currently defined cut-off date.  He said he didn’t want to “turn off good science.”  Bolden replied that extended missions are good, but not if they jeopardize initiating new missions because of funding constraints.

It was a rancorous hearing, but Culberson insisted to Bolden that “you’ve got no better group of friends up here than this subcommittee.”   That may well be true – NASA is quite popular on Capitol Hill – but it was not all that obvious today.

Note:  This article was updated with Wolf’s comments at the hearing with Department of Commerce Secretary Pritzker on April 9, 2014.

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