House SS&T Members Question Obama Commitment to SLS/Orion, Absence of NASA CFO

House SS&T Members Question Obama Commitment to SLS/Orion, Absence of NASA CFO

A hearing before the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee on the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft yesterday covered familiar ground, especially Republican criticism that the Obama Administration does not sufficiently support those programs.  Perhaps the most interesting elements were the minimal discussion of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) and the absence of NASA’s Chief Financial Officer (CFO), David Radzanowski, who was asked to testify. 

Radzanowski was included on the witness list prior to the hearing as “(invited)”.  As the hearing began, Subcommittee Chairman Steve Palazzo (R-MS) noted that Radzanowski was not there “despite numerous invitations and attempts to secure his attendance” to explain NASA’s budget development process and guidance.  Palazzo said NASA’s other witness, Bill Gerstenmaier, “may not be the appropriate person to explain many of the policies and practices being advanced by the CFO’s office.”

Saying they understood the CFO has a busy schedule, Palazzo reported that the committee told NASA it was willing to accept a substitute, but “unfortunately, NASA prohibited any other CFO representative from appearing today.”  He argued that the CFO is a Senate-confirmed position, which requires that individual to appear before the relevant congressional authorization committees and “I look forward to Mr. Radzanowski’s appearance before this committee in the near future.”

NASA spokesman Bob Jacobs told via email today, however, that “Unfortunately, we knew [he] would be out of town at the time of the proposed hearing.  The agency determined that he was best suited to address any questions and did offer an alternative date for his availability, which was declined.”

Consequently, the only two witnesses were Gerstenmaier, who is NASA Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations, and Cristina Chaplain, director, acquisition and sourcing management, Government Accountability Office (GAO).

Republicans and Democrats paid tribute to Gerstenmaier personally and to the NASA/Lockheed Martin/United Launch Alliance team that successfully flew the Orion Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1) mission last week.  GAO’s Chaplain, sitting next to Gerstenmaier at the witness table, also congratulated NASA on the flight.

Apart from that, the hearing was a familiar litany of complaints by Republicans against the Obama Administration for what they perceive to be its lack of support for SLS and Orion. Indeed, Congress – with both Republican and Democratic backing – added money above the President’s request for these programs in the FY2015 omnibus appropriations bill now working its way through Congress as it did in prior years.

The exception was Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) who told Gerstenmaier that SLS was “a rotten decision on the part of this committee.  It’s not your fault. You’re good soldiers [but] we have given you an undoable task.”  Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) retorted that “I’m glad that didn’t stop Apollo.”

The two Democratic members who attended — Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) and Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR) — offered support for the Administration’s long-term goal of sending humans to Mars, but were silent about its near-term goal, ARM, that involves redirecting an asteroid into lunar orbit to be visited by astronauts.

The hearing focused on SLS and Orion and where they can take the U.S. human spaceflight program, but discussion of ARM was negligible.  In 2010, President Obama directed NASA to send astronauts to an asteroid as the next step in human spaceflight.  When asked early in the hearing what the first destination is for SLS and Orion, Gerstenmaier talked about cis-lunar space without mentioning ARM, however.  Only after being asked directly by Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) toward the end of the hearing about the international community’s reaction to ARM did Gerstenmaier defend it as part of the path to Mars.

Bridenstine referenced the National Research Council (NRC) report on the future of the human spaceflight program – the “pathways” report – as saying ARM is not in alignment with the international community and could result in spending money on “dead-end technologies.”   Gerstenmaier said they were not dead-end.  He offered that NASA did not have an opportunity to brief the NRC committee on how the technical capabilities needed for ARM could translate into delivering cargo to Mars, for example.  ARM envisions using a robotic spacecraft powered by solar electric propulsion to nudge an asteroid from its native orbit into an orbit around the Moon, where it could be studied by astronauts.  Technologies needed to redirect the asteroid conceivably could be used to send cargo to Mars.  “We ran out of time towards the end” of the NRC committee’s deliberations, Gerstenmaier said, so its members did not see how NASA envisioned the pieces coming together.

Bridenstine mentioned the NRC report a number of times, noting that it cost $3.2 million.  It seemed less a complaint about the cost than an admonition that Congress should pay attention to what it recommended considering the investment.

Palazzo seemed particularly interested in discovering when NASA realized that SLS might need an additional $400 million to meet its schedule.   GAO reported on the potential shortfall earlier this year.  Gerstenmaier said that because Congress appropriated more money than the President requested and NASA has slipped the launch date, the “risk will be retired,” explaining that the program carries technical risk, schedule risk, and budget risk.

Gerstenmaier stressed that what the SLS and Orion programs really need is budget certainty, with agreement between the Administration and Congress on how much the programs will get each year.  “One thing that could be very helpful to us is getting stability and understanding what the budget is,” he told Edwards, adding later that he is managing the program “in this kind of interesting environment where we get different funding levels.”

He also conveyed that it is not only budget issues that will determine the pace at which humans explore Mars.   It is also a matter of becoming “proficient at these skills” to take the steps needed to reach Mars.

Last month, NASA released its Key Decision Point-C (KDP-C) analysis for SLS in which it committed to an SLS readiness date of November 2018, almost a year later than the original December 2017 deadline.  At the time, though, NASA said it was keeping December 2017 as an internal goal.  At this hearing, however, Gerstenmaier said the agency has moved beyond that date and now estimates June 2018 for the first launch of SLS with an uncrewed Orion.  More money cannot move up the date, he said.

Chaplain, in fact, intimated that Orion may not be ready by then:   “At this time, it does not look like they could make 2017 and 2018 is a challenge in and of itself.”  She said there is a funding risk for Orion “that is considerably high.”  GAO thinks an integrated schedule for SLS, Orion and associated ground systems is needed, with all achieving readiness at the same time.

Gerstenmaier disagreed.  He argued that they do not have to be ready simultaneously and, in fact, there is an advantage to SLS being ready before Orion.  Emphasizing that typically a rocket is ready before a payload arrives at the launch site, he insisted that “SLS coming first, having the ground systems ready in Florida, and then Orion showing up at the third place is perfectly fine.”  Trying to synch all three “puts another burden” on the program and can result in inefficiency.

Overall, the hearing broke little new ground, but afforded an opportunity for subcommittee members, albeit with strong political overtones, to applaud the success of Orion EFT-1 and the possibilities it represents.

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