House Hearing Shows Opposition to Asteroid Mission, Divisions on Draft Bill

House Hearing Shows Opposition to Asteroid Mission, Divisions on Draft Bill

The House subcommittee hearing on a draft 2013 NASA Authorization Act this morning showed continued skepticism about or opposition to the Obama Administration’s proposed asteroid initiative.  It also revealed that even some Republicans on the subcommittee object to certain provisions of the draft bill.

Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-MS), chairman of the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, began the hearing by praising the committee’s outreach efforts in drafting the bill saying that it was the result of “input from a wide variety of interests throughout the science and space communities.”   Somewhat surprisingly then, not only did subcommittee Democrats and both witnesses — NASA Advisory Council Chairman Steve Squyres and retired industry executive Tom Young — express deep reservations about the bill, but the subcommittee’s vice chairman, Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), said he “may have to oppose it.”  

Brooks’s complaint is the $1.4 billion for the Space Launch System (SLS) included in the bill is insufficient.  He read from an email sent by former NASA Administrator Mike Griffin and a letter from an unnamed former NASA official both insisting that a minimum of $1.8 billion is needed for that program.  SLS is being built at Marshall Space Flight Center, which Brooks represents.

The total amount of funding provided by the bill is $16.865 billion for FY2014 and for FY2015.  A provision in the bill says that if Congress repeals or replaces the sequester and additional funds become available, they are to be spent 50 percent for the International Space Station (ISS), 25 percent for commercial crew, and 25 percent for SLS.

Not everyone on the committee is a fan of SLS, however.   Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), vice chairman of the full committee and a strong supporter of commercial space, called it the “SLS Titanic,” saying it is not sustainable and will drain money from everything else.  He asked Squyres, who is best known as the principal investigator for the Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity, if SLS is a prerequisite for sending people to Mars.  Squyres said that some sort of heavy lift rocket is needed, but his main concern is that NASA is being asked to do too much with too little:  “We can afford to utilize the space station…. We can afford to develop SLS and to do it on a safe and reasonable schedule. But I don’t see that we can do both.”  Squyres also expressed concern about the low launch rate expected for SLS — perhaps one launch every two years — an issue he has emphasized in the past

Later, Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) asked Squyres and Young when we could send people to Mars if we started right now.    Squyres asked “with the current budget?” and then turned to Young, who quickly responded “never.”  Squyres added “I agree.”

The draft bill would set in law a policy that the goals of NASA’s human spaceflight program are human missions to lunar orbit, the surface of the Moon and the surface of Mars, “and beyond” and require NASA to establish a program for a sustained human presence on the Moon and the surface of Mars.  NASA would be required to develop a Mars Human Exploration roadmap within one year and specific details of that roadmap are spelled out.    It also includes details about ISS utilization and the commercial crew program, including setting a deadline of December 31, 2017 for a flight readiness demonstration by when one or more commercial crew partners will have successfully transported astronauts to the ISS.

The hot topic in human spaceflight right now, however, is NASA’s proposal to send a robotic probe to capture an asteroid, direct it into lunar orbit, and send astronauts to study it and return a sample.   The terms Asteroid Return Mission, Asteroid Retrieval Mission, and Asteroid Redirect Mission are used interchangeably to refer to this concept and dubbed ARM.  ARM is part of an Asteroid Initiative that in turn is part of an Asteroid Strategy.   NASA held a half-day meeting yesterday to make the case for the initiative (see the video on YouTube), which would involve the public in searching for asteroids.  NASA also issued a Request for Information (RFI) to solicit ideas on how to carry out ARM.  Replies are due by July 18, 2013.

The draft bill, however, specifically prohibits NASA from spending any funds on ARM, and no Members or witnesses defended the concept.   As he has said previously, Squyres believes the human spaceflight program should be focused on sending people to Mars and does not see that ARM advances that goal.  At the hearing today he added that NASA should be allowed to make its case, but “I haven’t heard it yet.”  Young said that whatever resources are provided to NASA should be spent on “highest priority endeavors” and in his judgment ARM is not one of them.

The top Democrats on the full committee, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), and subcommittee, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), listed a number of concerns about the draft bill.  Edwards said that it appears to “shift the emphasis of NASA’s core mission to human spaceflight” rather than the multi-mission agency NASA is required to be under the 1958 NASA Authorization Act (as amended).  Johnson said the bill creates “unfunded mandates” and despite putting NASA’s budget “on a path of declining purchasing power for the foreseeable future, it … directs NASA to establish major new programs — not just goals — for sustained human presences on both the Moon and Mars.”

Johnson and Edwards objected to the $16.865 billion funding level — a cut of almost $1 billion from the request of $17.715 billion (the amount is level with what NASA received for FY2013 after adjustments for the sequester) — and to dramatic cuts to NASA’s Earth science budget and reductions to space technology.  In the bill, Earth science would receive $650 million less than the FY2014 request, a one-third cut, and Edwards said space technology is focused only on exploration goals.  She and Johnson noted that the subcommittee had not heard from the Earth science or space technology communities and called for hearings on those topics.

Johnson decried the “arbitrary” deadline for the commercial crew flight demonstration, arguing that it evokes the “schedule pressure” that the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) warned against in its review of the space shuttle Columbia tragedy.  

“This is not a bill ready for markup,” Johnson asserted, and “will be DOA in the Senate.”   

Less than an hour later, Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), chairman of the companion subcommittee in the Senate, said exactly that in remarks to a Space Transportation Association luncheon.   He vowed that he would not accept a budget level of $16.8 billion for NASA, saying it “would run NASA into a ditch.”  He particularly objected to the proposed cuts to Earth science.   He said that the full Senate Commerce Committee hopefully will mark up its version of a NASA authorization bill by mid-July, but hinted that it might be a partisan debate.

As for the House bill, one area where everyone did seem to agree is that the Obama Administration’s proposed reorganization of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education programs is unacceptable.  Palazzo called it “poorly conceived” and “not ready for implementation.”  The draft bill would retain the current funding and structure of education programs in NASA.  Squyres called the administration’s proposal “deeply misguided.”

Except for that issue, however, there seemed little agreement on what the bill should say.  Squyres and Young expressed many reservations about other aspects of the bill, as well, particuarly stressing that  NASA should be allowed to deal with the technical aspects of programs rather than setting detailed requirements in legislation.  In reply to Rep. Steve Stockman (R-TX), they both also said that the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) is too deeply involved in “minute” details of NASA programs.  Squyres said that in the past OMB and Congress set high level goals, while NASA implemented programs, but the “level of detailed oversight” today is “unprecedented” and “detrimental” to the agency.

A webcast of the hearing, opening statements by Palazzo, Johnson and Edwards, and prepared statements by the witnesses are on the Republican and Democratic committee websites.

 Correction:  An earlier version of this article mistakenly stated that the total amount authorized in the bill was $16.845 billion instead of $16.865 billion.

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