Senate Appropriators Unhappy with NASA FY2016 Budget Request

Senate Appropriators Unhappy with NASA FY2016 Budget Request

Hours after defending the President’s FY2016 budget request before a House subcommittee, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden was in front of a Senate subcommittee with the same task – convincing skeptical lawmakers that the request reflects the right priorities for the space agency.  He also used the opportunity to once again urge Senate confirmation of Dava Newman as Deputy Administrator.

Bolden testified before the House subcommittee that authorizes NASA’s activities this morning.  This afternoon’s hearing was across Capitol Hill in the Senate and before the appropriations subcommittee that funds the agency.  Authorizing committees set policy and recommend funding levels, but only appropriators have money to spend.

In this case, Republicans and Democrats on both sides of the Hill, authorizers and appropriators alike, expressed dissatisfaction with the choices made in the President’s $18.5 billion budget request for NASA.

The hearing before the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee was comparatively brief, lasting less than an hour.  The four Senators present focused almost entirely on issues affecting their constituents, but the opening statements by subcommittee chairman Richard Shelby (R-AL) and Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) touched on broader issues.

Shelby said the significant increase in the request compared to FY2015 should have represented balanced funding for NASA priorities, but instead there are significant increases for commercial crew and for space technology, but reductions for science missions and exploration systems development.   His primary interest is the Space Launch
System (SLS), being built in his state of Alabama, and he criticized the
“20 percent cut” to SLS at a critical phase in its development.  Warning that “a lot of us are troubled” by the request, Shelby said that “requiring development programs to operate with insufficient funding is irresponsible.”  

Later in the hearing Shelby queried Bolden about the commercial crew program.  Shelby is a strong skeptic about that program.  Today he wanted to know why NASA was buying more seats on Russian Soyuz spacecraft for a period of time when commercial crew systems should be available.  What is worrying NASA about the progress of that program, he asked, that is causing it to buy more Russian seats?  Bolden replied that his concern is that Congress will not provide the needed funding for the program.   Congress historically has not fully funded the commercial crew program and Bolden often reminds Congress that if full funding had been provided, the commercial crew systems would be ready this year.  Instead, there is a two-year slip.  Shelby retorted that NASA wasted resources by supporting too many companies.

Shelby also wanted an update on Russia’s commitment to the International Space Station (ISS) and whether it has formally notified NASA that it plans to end its participation in 2024 and remove some of its modules as reported in the press.  Bolden said no, it was quite the opposite.  He met with the new head of the Russian space agency, Igor Komarov, last month and Komarov made it clear that Russia is committed to ISS until 2024 and has no plans to remove any modules.  Bolden added that the other ISS partners had been waiting for Russia to make that commitment and he now expects that they will do so as well.  Bolden firmly said “yes” when Shelby asked if NASA can operate ISS without the Russian segments.

Mikulski was particularly distressed about cuts to Goddard Space Flight Center in her state of Maryland, but more broadly worried that the choices made in the request would undermine the bipartisan agreement on a balanced space program that has been in place for several years.  “I have very deep concerns” about the threat posed to that balanced program, she said in her opening statement, later adding that “I want to make sure our best days aren’t behind us.”

Mikulski was especially concerned about cuts to the satellite servicing development program at Goddard.  Bolden asked if he could talk to her in person later  to explain why he reduced its funding.  The private sector is already working on those technologies, he explained, and for four years he has been trying to determine who the customer for NASA’s efforts would be.  “I want to make sure we are not at odds with industry” because his experience is that industry wants NASA to be its customer, not the reverse.  Mikulski also worried about an overall cut of more than $300 million for activities at Goddard, but Bolden assured her that as more programs are assigned to Goddard during the year, more money will accompany them.

Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), chairman of the full Appropriations Committee, asked if Bolden thinks Congress and the Administration are working together constructively on the SLS program.  SLS will be tested at Stennis Space Center in Cochran’s state of Mississippi.  Bolden exclaimed that he did not think he has been as effective as he could be and promised to spend more time with the committee explaining what NASA is doing, adding that “I am pleading for the Senate to confirm Dr. Dava Newman as my Deputy because I need the help.”

Cochran later commented that a “robust testing infrastructure” is needed at Stennis to test new rocket engines in the future and then asked “Is there a future?”   Bolden used the opportunity to declare, in reaction to Mikulski’s earlier comment, that “our best days are in front of us.  I can promise you that.”

Sen. Shelley Capito (R-WV) also attended the hearing, asking questions about the future of NASA’s Independent Verification and Validation (IV&V) facility in her state of West Virginia (Bolden assured her of its importance) and diversity in NASA’s workforce (Bolden said he was not happy with it and is seeking ways to encourage women and minorities to remain in science and engineering leadership positions).

Several other topics were discussed.  A webcast of the hearing is available on the committee’s website.

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