UPDATE: Congress Still Waiting For Answers on Obama Plan

UPDATE: Congress Still Waiting For Answers on Obama Plan

UPDATE: NASA has clarified that Mr. Bolden misspoke at the hearing when he said that funding for the downscaled version of the Orion spacecraft would come from commercial crew. See our story about NASA’s clarification.


The House Science and Technology Committee’s hearing on human space flight this morning underscored Members’ concerns that almost four months after release of NASA’s FY2011 budget request, they still have few answers about the details of the new plan. President Obama’s April 15 speech at Kennedy Space Center appears to have muddied the waters rather than cleared them by adding two new “unfunded mandates:” the decision to build a downscaled “crew rescue” version of the Orion spacecraft and the $40 million initiative to help workers along the Florida space coast. Chairman Gordon revealed that NASA’s preliminary estimate for “Orion-lite” is $5-7 billion over 5 years, not including operational costs.

NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden told the committee that NASA would submit a revised FY2011 budget “in the near future” to show where the money will come from to pay for Orion-lite and the workforce package. He insisted that the total will not go “above the curve”: the budget request will remain at $19 billion. That means funding meant for other NASA activities will have to be reduced. He assured the committee that funding for science and aeronautics research will not be touched, and the reductions would be in technology development and commercial crew. His statements made clear that the process of “robbing Peter to pay Paul,” so heavily criticized during his predecessor’s tenure, has begun before the new plan is even approved.

Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) pointed out that if it will cost NASA $5-7 billion for Orion-lite, a vehicle that can only bring people back from space, NASA’s estimate of $6 billion to subsidize multiple companies to be able to offer commercial crew vehicles to take people both to and from space seems unrealistic. Orion-lite should be easier to design, build and certify as safe because it will be launched empty; it does not have to meet ascent human safety standards. It only must meet the visiting vehicle requirements for docking with the ISS and returning people to Earth.

Bolden appeared solo on the first “panel” of the hearing for about two hours. He was followed by a panel with Neil Armstrong, Gene Cernan and Tom Young. Strong Member interest in the hearing made it run into extra innings. The webcast is not yet on the committee’s website, but hopefully will be posted shortly.

During the hearing, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), chairwoman of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee, asked Bolden if it was true that Constellation program manager Jeff Hanley was being replaced at that very moment. Bolden confirmed that it was his understanding that Hanley was being told that morning that he would be reassigned to be Deputy Director of Johnson Space Center for strategic studies. The timing seemed odd since it has been known for quite some time that Bolden would be testifying this morning. What message, if any, NASA was sending by removing Hanley at the same time the hearing was underway is a mystery.

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