House SS&T Chairman Smith Wants Vision for Space Program

House SS&T Chairman Smith Wants Vision for Space Program

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee, made clear at a hearing yesterday and in an op-ed today that he is not convinced the space program is on the right track.

Presidential Science Adviser John Holdren testified to the committee yesterday about the FY2014 budget request for federal research and development (R&D).  The hearing covered all federal R&D agencies, but the first agency Smith talked about in his opening statement was NASA.   Saying that he looks at federal investments in R&D through the prism of ensuring American leadership, he asked a series of questions about NASA’s program, including whether sending humans to an asteroid is the right goal for human spaceflight or should it be the Moon. 

Later in the hearing, Smith asked Holdren why the Obama Administration is not following the advice of the scientific community to return to the Moon instead of going to an asteroid.   He referenced a December 2012 National Research Council (NRC) report that concluded there was a lack of enthusiasm for the asteroid mission initiated by the President in 2010.   Holdren acknowledged that there was “lack of excitement among some” about the asteroid mission at that time, but insisted that much has changed since December.  NASA has developed an “extraordinarily ingenious and cost effective new approach” to the mission, he said, and “I’m now seeing a lot of enthusiasm.”  Smith countered that it was not in any set of recommended missions from the NRC or other panels and it seems like “an afterthought when the first mission didn’t get supported by the international or by the scientific community.”  He did not reject the idea, however, saying “we can weigh it as we go forward.”

Smith also asked why NASA is involved in earth science when there are 13 federal agencies doing climate change research.  He wondered why NASA should not focus on its space mission and let the other 12 study climate change.   Holdren defended NASA’s broadly-based program, asserting that NASA needs to continue applying its unique capabilities to space, earth science, and aeronautics as it has historically.

In today’s op-ed in the Houston Chronicle, Smith focused on NASA’s space exploration mission and called for President Obama to “work with Congress to provide a vision for the agency” adding that for NASA to succeed it needs “continuity of vision and consistency in its budget.”  Conceding that NASA cannot “defy budget gravity” and get a budget increase when others are getting cut, he argued that “we need to play smarter and squeeze as much productivity as we can out the money we have.”

Smith offered no specifics of his own on what to do.  Arguably, the President laid out a vision three years ago — sending astronauts to an asteroid as a steppingstone to Mars — so “continuity of vision” would mean continuing on that path even though a strong contingent wants a return to President George W. Bush’s 2004 vision of sending humans back to the Moon.  That includes eight Members of Congress who reintroduced legislation (H.R. 1446) to direct NASA to develop a plan for landing humans on the Moon and establishing a human presence there.  Smith is not a co-sponsor of that bill.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden has warned about changing directions again, telling the NRC last month that NASA is not planning for a human lunar mission and if a future decision is made to do that, it would probably mean that Americans would not be on the Moon, an asteroid, Mars or anywhere in the lifetimes of the people in the room.  “We cannot continue to change the course of human exploration,” he emphasized.



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