House SS&T Committee Charges Administration with Flipping Priorities in FY2012 Budget Request

House SS&T Committee Charges Administration with Flipping Priorities in FY2012 Budget Request

During today’s hearing of the House Science, Space & Technology Committee (HSS&T), National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Administrator Charles Bolden was sharply questioned on the priorities reflected in the President’s FY2012 budget request. Members repeatedly said the request does not follow Congress’s directives for the agency as laid out in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, particularly with respect to human spaceflight.

Chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) began the hearing saying that “the Administration’s FY2012 budget proposal completely flips the priorities of the Act, significantly increasing Commercial Crew funding while making deep cuts to the Human Exploration Capabilities accounts.” Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), ranking member of the Committee, echoed this sentiment saying, “I had thought the Administration agreed with the compromise [agreed to in the Authorization], but I’m afraid I do not see it reflected in the NASA budget request.”

Although some Members attempted to get Bolden to speculate on the impact of cuts that were contained in the Continuing Resolution (CR) passed by the House on February 19, he declined to do so because they are not final yet. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) quizzed Bolden about whether the White House or NASA informed Congress of the potential impact of a $300 million reduction adopted during floor debate, asserting that Republicans had tried to protect NASA while Democrats had not. The amendment was offered by Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-NY). Gen. Bolden said he would provide an answer for the record about what NASA did or did not tell Congress in that regard.

Brooks neglected to mention that the Republican-led House Appropriations Committee also cut about $300 million from NASA’s budget in the bill they sent to floor. Thus, that CR (H.R. 1) contains a total cut of $601 million from NASA’s FY2010 spending level. Congress continues to consider that CR, which would last through the end of FY2011. It passed a different CR (H. J. Res. 44) this week to fund the government through March 18; that one does not contain NASA-specific cuts.

The main issue of contention during the hearing, however, was the agency’s decision to request more money for development of commercial crew services for transport to low Earth orbit (LEO) than authorized in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act and less for a new NASA-developed Space Launch System (also called a heavy lift launch vehicle–HLLV) and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle. Members asked whether NASA would comply with the directive in the law to fly a new HLLV and crew capsule by 2016.

Gen. Bolden explained that with budget constraints in mind and with safety still his number one priority, commercial transport to LEO remains the Administration’s preferred option. Development of the HLLV and crew capsule are for exploration missions beyond LEO, he said, and while they would serve as backup for LEO access if commercial ventures fail, it would be expensive to use them for that purpose. Developing them by 2016 is “difficult” under current budget constraints, he said, and NASA would be “challenged no matter how much money you give us.” An interim report sent to Congress by NASA in January on the preliminary designs for the two systems said the agency could not build them on the timescale and within the funding level authorized in the law.

A summary of the hearing will be available on soon.

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