NRC Report Gets Warm Reception from House Committee Amid Partisan Tensions

NRC Report Gets Warm Reception from House Committee Amid Partisan Tensions

The new National Research Council (NRC) report on the future of human space exploration received a warm reception today at a House committee hearing, but partisan tensions among committee members were evident even if they were not directly aimed at NASA.

The NRC study is fairly well aligned with the views of many members of Congress in terms of the long term goal for human exploration (landing people on Mars), a lack of enthusiasm for President Obama’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), and the need for the United States to be the global leader in human space exploration with significant international partnerships.

That long term goal has broad support, including from the Obama Administration.  The seemingly endless debate is about the steps for getting there.  In the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, Congress directed NASA to contract with the NRC for this study to get closer to resolving those steps.   Today’s hearing before the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee was the first opportunity for Congress to hear the results of the study formally.

The NRC report advocates a stepping-stone approach to achieving the “horizon goal” of humans on Mars.  It assessed three potential “pathways,” but did not choose among them.  Instead it focused on where each of the pathways needed new technologies and whether those technologies were “dead ends” or would build upon each other to achieve the goal.

House SS&T committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) is a strong proponent of the Mars Flyby 2021 concept, which is at odds with NRC’s approach.  Smith did not mention that concept either in his opening statement or during questions to the witnesses today.  The concept envisions launching a small crew on a one-and-a-half-year journey to flyby (not orbit or land on) Mars in 2021 on the first crewed flight of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft.   Critics argue it is too risky and has little reward since it is a one-time event, not part of a procession of missions that ultimately leads to humans on the surface of Mars.

Smith and other Republicans used the hearing to once again criticize the Obama Administration’s ARM as, at best, a diversion from the Mars goal. They also complained that NASA spends too much on climate research and not enough on human exploration.   NASA’s annual earth science budget is about $1.8 billion.  The budget for SLS and Orion is approximately $4 billion a year.  If funding for the International Space Station – critical to achieving the goal of sending humans to Mars according to NASA – is added, the total for NASA’s human spaceflight program is on the order of $7 billion a year.

Smith lambasted the Administration for requesting a FY2015 budget for NASA that is $1.8 billion less than its budget during the last year of the George W. Bush Administration, saying that demonstrates that NASA is not an Administration priority.  The budget request is $17.5 billion.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the top Democrat on the committee, said that she found Smith’s comments “almost comical” considering the “struggle” the committee had last year over NASA’s authorization bill.   At that time, on a party-line vote, Republicans approved a $16.9 billion budget for NASA, while Democrats were fighting for $18.1 billion.  That bill was replaced this year by one (H.R. 4412) that represents bipartisan agreement on policy issues, but bypasses funding issues by authorizing funds only for FY2014, which is already underway.

The two parties have been locked in bruising debates on this committee in the past several weeks over reauthorization of the America COMPETES Act, the Department of Energy’s research and development programs, and what Republicans call the Environmental Protection Agency’s “secret science” regulatory process.  This year’s agreement on H.R. 4412, which passed the House earlier this month, was a bright spot in committee bipartisanship.

Today, committee Democrats did not defend the President’s ARM project and while they did not directly criticize it, their disenchantment was clear.   Johnson said she hopes the NRC report is “a first step in achieving a revitalized, focused exploration program for America”  and called the NRC report a “wake-up call” that “we are not going to have a human space exploration program worthy of a great nation if we continue down the current path.”

The only witnesses were the co-chairs of the NRC study: Jonathan Lunine, a renowned space scientist at Cornell University, and Mitch Daniels, President of Purdue University and former Republican governor of Indiana.

Daniels and Lunine were frank in explaining the rationale for sending people to Mars at all and the challenges that lie ahead, both technical and political.

Lunine pointed out that there are many “myths that surround both public opinion and proven benefits” from human space exploration.   The NRC study found that the public pays little attention to it and was not enamored of the Apollo program while it was underway.  Today Apollo is “viewed as a source of inspiration and great pride by many if not most Americans,” Lunine said, but that was not true at the time.  Instead, “it has been political leadership that determines” if new ventures are pursued and the public supports it retrospectively.   Daniels remarked that if there was some “secret sauce to ignite public excitement” it would have been applied long ago.

He and Lunine repeatedly stressed the need for a “steadfast commitment” and a “disciplined, sustained approach” if Americans ever are to land on Mars, and that includes increasing the budget for human space exploration on the order of 2-3 percent above inflation.   Committee members pressed the witnesses for precise cost estimates, but they demurred.  Daniels, who was Director of the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) from 2001-2003, said the NRC committee did not want to “commit the sin of false precision” and instead provided only a range of costs – hundreds of billions of dollars over decades.   He commented that the human spaceflight budget is in the “tenths of a percent of the federal budget” and increases would be no more than “rounding errors.”

The NRC concluded that current law that prohibits NASA from bilateral cooperation with China is not in the nation’s best interest.  The issue of NASA-China cooperation is a hot button issue that could have been a heated point of contention today, but it was not.  Some committee members raised it, but the witnesses generally deflected the questions and the members chose not to press them on it.  Daniels said that the NRC committee was asking only that everyone remain open to such cooperation and pointed out that geopolitical relationships change over time and sending people to Mars is a multi-decade endeavor.   Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), a staunch critic of the Chinese government and supporter of the current law, even joked that considering how much money the United States borrows from China “if we don’t make them our partner we’re going to borrow it from them anyway.”

One criticism of the NRC report has been that it did not incorporate the potential importance of commercial partnerships, but Daniels parried that was not accurate.  He said the committee met with leaders of the commercial space community and there are “a lot of possibilities there.”

Johnson summed up the situation by saying that “As Members of Congress, the ball is now is our court, and we have choices to make.  We can choose to continue to argue about which President or who in Congress is to blame for the current state of our human space exploration program, but I earnestly hope that we won’t.  We are where we are, and we can’t change the past.  Our focus needs to be on how we proceed from this point forward.”

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