House Subcommittee Members Skeptical, Worried

House Subcommittee Members Skeptical, Worried

Members of a House subcommittee expressed concern on a bipartisan basis today about NASA’s new asteroid retrieval mission as well as whether NASA will get the resources needed to fund responsibilities transferred from other agencies if the FY2014 budget request is approved.

The Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee heard from NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden about the FY2014 NASA budget request.  Questions focused on four major areas of concern.

  • Asteroid Retrieval Strategy.  Several members, including subcommittee chairman Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-MS), full committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), and ranking subcommittee Democrat Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), expressed concern about  NASA’s request for $105 million to move forward on its new asteroid retrieval strategy.  That strategy involves capturing an asteroid, directing it into a lunar orbit, and sending astronauts to retrieve a sample.   
    • One question was how much such a mission would cost.  Bolden reiterated what he and other agency officials have been saying that although they have yet to complete a mission concept study, they think it will be less than the $2.6 billion estimated by the 2012 Keck Institute of Space Studies (KISS) report where the idea originated.  NASA’s thinking is that the KISS study did not take into account work ongoing at NASA on the Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion capsule, development of solar electric propulsion (SEP), and searches for Near Earth Objects (NEOs – asteroids and comets).  The KISS study also envisioned retrieving a particular type of asteroid of scientific interest that would take longer to reach than a more generic asteroid NASA hopes to find one that is closer and already on a path towards the Earth-Moon system.  
    • Several Republicans also pressed Bolden on whether sending people to an asteroid or putting them on the lunar surface is better in terms of the ultimate goal of sending astronauts to Mars.  Bolden said neither is better, but the reality is that he does not have the money for a lunar surface mission.  He said that he had been told the cost of the Altair lunar lander planned for the Constellation program under the George W. Bush Administration was $8-10 billion, while the cost for this asteroid mission is $2.6 billion or less. (That estimate is on top of the existing spending on SLS, Orion, SEP, and NEO searches). 
  • SLS/Orion versus Commercial Crew.   Several members also questioned why the request for SLS is less than what Congress authorized while funding would increase dramatically (in percentage terms) for commercial crew.  Those questions continue the debate over the uneasy compromise Congress and the Obama Administration reached in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.   The President wanted to turn human spaceflight to low Earth orbit (LEO) over to the private sector by providing partial funding to companies to develop systems to take astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS).  Congress, however, wanted NASA to develop a new “heavy lift” launch vehicle (SLS) and a spacecraft (Orion) to take astronauts beyond LEO as was planned in the Bush Administration’s Constellation program.   The compromise was to do both, a major challenge in a budget-constrained reality.  Some members want NASA to narrow the number of companies it is supporting in the commercial crew program, but NASA wants at least two so there is competition.   Bolden also stressed that SLS is funded in three different parts of NASA’s budget so while there may appear to be a reduction, in fact there is not.  NASA is stressing firmly that if it does not get the $821 million requested for commercial crew in  FY2014, the availability of a U.S. space transportation system to launch American astronauts from American soil will not be possible by 2017.  NASA has not been able to launch astronauts since the space shuttle was discontinued in 2011.  It pays Russia to ferry astronauts to the ISS at a price of $63 million each.
  • New Responsibilities Without Sufficient New Resources.   The FY2014 budget request proposes transferring climate sensors that were to be funded by NOAA, and responsibility for the facilities that produce plutonium-238 for some of NASA’s planetary probes that was to be paid for by the Department of Energy, to NASA.  In addition, NASA would be assigned responsibility for building future Landsat land remote sensing satellites; the Obama Administration had hoped to assign that to the U.S. Geological Survey, which operates the Landsat satellites, but Congress said no.   Small increases are included in the FY2014 request to cover the costs of the climate sensors and Pu-238 production, but whether they will be sustained in future years is the concern.  The budget for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate is already stretched thin, especially for planetary science.
  • Restructuring of STEM Programs.  Reps. Joe Kennedy III (D-MA) and Frederica Wilson (D-FL) are worried about the White House’s proposal to consolidate Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education programs from 13 agencies to three (National Science Foundation, Department of Education, and Smithsonian), dramatically reducing NASA’s role in these programs.  Bolden defended the move, saying that when he asked his Office of Education staff to provide metrics on the effectiveness of NASA’s education programs, they did not have an answer.  The new structure is intended to make the STEM programs more effective in terms of cost and value to the students, he said.

At one point, Smith asked Bolden about new problems in the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) program. Bolden insisted at first that he is briefed on JWST weekly and the program is on track.  Smith then read from a Government Accountability Office (GAO) report released last week that identified 11 month delays in two JWST instruments and other issues.  Bolden clearly was taken by surprise.  GAO says “JWST is currently experiencing technical issues” including the spacecraft being overweight and “two instruments will be delivered at least 11 months late.”  NASA officials in other forums have emphasized that the re-baselined program has sufficient schedule and funding reserves to cope with any problems that arise and still maintain the 2018 launch schedule.   It is surprising, however, that Bolden apparently had not been briefed on the GAO report. 

NASA’s budget request, like that of the other Executive Branch agencies, assumes that sequestration will be replaced by another method of deficit reduction.  Edwards asked Bolden what will happen if that does not happen and sequestration continues.  Bolden replied: “to be candid, all bets are off” if sequestration remains the law of the land.

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