Senators Skeptical About Administration's Intent on NASA Authorization Act

Senators Skeptical About Administration's Intent on NASA Authorization Act

Yesterday’s hearing before the Senate Commerce subcommittee chaired by Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) left no doubt that Senators on both sides of the aisle remain deeply skeptical of the Administration’s intent to implement the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.

Congress passed and the President signed the Act into law several weeks ago, but Congress has yet to appropriate funds for FY2011 to carry it out. Presidential Science Adviser John Holdren and NASA Chief Financial Officer (CFO) Beth Robinson repeatedly assured the Senators that the Administration likes the Act and intends to carry it out as long as Congress gives them the resources to do so.

The government is currently operating on a Continuing Resolution (CR) at last year’s funding levels. For NASA, that is $18.7 billion, not much less than the $19 billion requested for the agency in FY2011. Senator Nelson hinted that the agency might end up flat funded for FY2011, but got agreement from Holdren and Robinson that $18.7 billion is enough to implement the Act. For their part, the Administration witnesses cautioned that if the funding is dramatically lower, they do not know how the agency will cope. Some Republicans are arguing for all agencies to be cut back to their FY2008 funding levels. For NASA, that would be $17.4 billion. Robinson pointed out that since the first quarter of FY2011 already has passed with the agency spending at the $18.7 billion level, if the agency had to absorb a cut of that magnitude, it would be a “drastic situation.”

Among the questions raised at the hearing was whether NASA would indeed launch the extra shuttle flight authorized in the Act – the so-called “Launch on Need” mission or STS-135. Robinson insisted that NASA wants to fly the mission, but must wait to see how the appropriations process turns out before making a final commitment. Holdren agreed that the mission would be flown unless NASA’s funding level is distinctly lower than the request.

Senators pressed Robinson to explain the status of implementing the programs in the Act. The situation is complicated because the FY2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act prohibits NASA from cancelling the Constellation program or initiating a replacement program until Congress passes another appropriations act allowing them to do so. Robinson replied that NASA therefore is getting rulings from its General Counsel’s office and advice from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) on how to proceed on specific elements of the program. General Counsel rulings have been issued to allow three programs to proceed (commercial crew, space technology, and setting up an organization to manage research on the International Space Station), but not yet for moving forward immediately with a new NASA-developed heavy lift launch vehicle (HLLV) and a NASA-developed crew exploration vehicle. Senators Nelson and Vitter (R-LA) wondered why the rulings are for programs the President had requested, not for the HLLV and crew vehicle programs that were directed by Congress. She explained that the decisions were driven by which programs needed clarification first.

Relieving NASA of the restrictions in the FY2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act would make NASA’s implementation of the authorization act easier. Senator Vitter asked Holdren and Robinson whether the Administration has conveyed to congressional appropriators that it wants the restrictions lifted as a priority matter and said he would view that as a test of the President’s commitment to implement the authorization act.

Holdren and Robinson’s repeated assurances throughout the hearing that the Administration would indeed implement the authorization act did not seem to quell the Senators’ discomfort. Nelson said that when the House was considering the authorization act some people in the Administration – but not at the highest levels, he said – were working against it. He was not specific about who they were.

The recently released independent review of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) program by a team headed by John Casani also was discussed. Senator Nelson asked Holdren, Robinson, and GAO’s Cristina Chaplain, another witness, about their reactions to the report, which revealed that JWST will cost $6.5 billion instead of $5 billion and slip another year to 2015. Each expressed deep dismay about the discovery of these problems, especially so late in the program. Holdren said he was “very disappointed,” while Robinson said that “we were heartened” to see that the program is meeting its technical milestones, but that it was “somewhat shocking” that the program had not followed normal NASA budgeting and planning procedures. Chaplain added that GAO was “very disappointed” and she would have to “rebaseline my thinking” about the improvements GAO thought NASA had been making in program management.

Robinson told the subcommittee that the Casani report was not the final word on JWST. She said that review group looked at the quickest route to complete the telescope, but it was not clear the agency could find the required funds to do that in the near term. A “bottoms up analysis” is underway to get a more detailed cost estimate, she said, and NASA would provide more details in the FY2012 budget request.

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