Melroy, Spinrad Sail Through Confirmation Hearing

Melroy, Spinrad Sail Through Confirmation Hearing

President Biden’s nominees for Administrator of NOAA and Deputy Administrator of NASA sailed through their nomination hearing today. Rick Spinrad and Pam Melroy seem destined for confirmation after a friendly hearing full of praise from Senators and reassuring answers from the witnesses. On the especially prominent issue of U.S. competition with China, Melroy said she supports existing restrictions on NASA cooperation with China and believes China’s goal is to wrest space superiority from the United States.

Pam Melroy, NASA Deputy Administrator nominee testifying before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, May 20, 2021. Screengrab.

Melroy, a former NASA astronaut, was introduced by Sen. Mark Kelly, another former NASA astronaut. She is a retired Air Force test pilot. He is a retired Navy test pilot. Not surprisingly, he said his “friend and former boss” is an “outstanding choice” and “without a doubt the right person at the right time for this job.”

Often mentioned as a potential NASA Administrator, Melroy instead was nominated for the second job, Deputy to former Senator Bill Nelson who was recently confirmed as Administrator. She will be the fourth woman to serve as Deputy after Shana Dale in George W. Bush’s second term and Lori Garver and Dava Newman during the Obama years.

Committee chair Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) praised Melroy’s nomination as indicative of President Biden’s commitment to elevating women in technical leadership roles.

But not to the top job, at least in this case.

For her part, Melroy said she is “ready to help Senator Nelson lead and manage NASA on day one” if she is confirmed.

An Air Force pilot who served in the first Persian Gulf War and later joined the NASA astronaut corps and became one of only two women to command a space shuttle mission, Melroy left NASA and served in other government and industry positions. That included stints at the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation and DARPA’s Tactical Technology Office that provided “unique insight” into the commercial space industry and how NASA works together with other agencies and the private sector, she told the committee.

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson shows an image taken by China’s Zhurong Mars lander/rover at a House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee hearing on NASA’s budget, May 19, 2021. Screengrab.

Her views on competition with China was one of the questions today.

The ability of the United States to compete with China in science and technology is a major focus in Congress right now. The topic came up repeatedly at yesterday’s House appropriations subcommittee hearing on NASA’s budget. Members used it as a rationale for funding NASA’s Artemis program to return astronauts to the Moon and go on to Mars lest China do it first.

China just successfully landed a lander/rover, Zhurong, on Mars. The first images of the landing site in Utopia Planitia were released hours before the hearing.

Nelson held up one of the images, characterizing China as an “aggressive competitor” even though hours earlier he had tweeted his congratulations to the China National Space Administration.

Today, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) asked Melroy about her perspective on China and whether the “guardrails” of the Wolf Amendment are sufficient to protect U.S. space technology. Named after Rep. Frank Wolf, the provision’s original sponsor who retired in 2015, the Wolf Amendment places sharp restrictions, though not a complete prohibition, on NASA cooperation with China.

Melroy supports the Wolf Amendment with the proviso that because both countries need to operate together in the space domain “there are times when it’s in the best interest of the United States to talk to China.”  Overall, however, she believes China’s goal is to “take away space superiority” from the United States.  Nelson’s recent criticism of China for the Long March-5B reentry is justified and international norms of behavior along the lines of the NASA-led orbital debris mitigation standards are needed more broadly.

The hearing considered not only the nominations of Melroy and Spinrad, but Carlos Monje to be Under Secretary of Transportation for Policy.

Cruz was one of the few Senators who asked questions about NASA.  Melroy replied that, if confirmed, she looks forward to talking with Roscosmos about its future space station plans so the two countries are coordinated, and supports extending use of the International Space Station (ISS) to 2030 as long as it is safe and feasible, but if Russia pulls out of ISS it would have a “serious outcome for optimum operations.”

Cantwell did seek Melroy’s views on how important “redundancy and resiliency” are in human spaceflight systems, a veiled reference to NASA choosing only one contractor, SpaceX, to build the Artemis Human Landing System (HLS). It is an open secret that Cantwell wants Blue Origin, headquartered in her state, to get a second HLS contract. Melroy followed Cantwell’s lead, answering that Artemis is a “systems engineering problem” and “multiple backups” are needed.

NASA wants two contractors, but Congress provided only 25 percent of the requested funding for FY2021 so was forced to select only one. Nelson is hoping $5.4 billion can be added to the jobs bill for HLS to fix the problem.

All in all, Cantwell’s endorsement of Melroy that “it’s hard to imagine a more qualified person for this role” ruled the day.

As for NOAA, which has been without a Senate-confirmed Administrator since the Obama Administration, the committee seemed equally enthusiastic about Spinrad. A former NOAA chief scientist, he would be the third NOAA Administrator from Oregon State University if confirmed. NOAA’s satellite programs barely got a mention as Senators focused on parochial interests like aquaculture and funding for Hawaii’s Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument.

Before the hearing began, the committee approved the nomination of Eric Lander to be Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP).

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