Witnesses Support Goal of NASA Restructuring Legislation, But Not Specifics

Witnesses Support Goal of NASA Restructuring Legislation, But Not Specifics

The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee held a hearing last Thursday on legislation introduced by Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) to restructure how NASA is governed.  Culberson says the goal is to make NASA less political and help ensure stability for its activities across presidential administrations and Congresses.

The Space Leadership Preservation Act (H.R. 2093) is on its third iteration.  It was originally introduced by then-Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) in the 112th and 113th Congresses (H.R. 6491 and H.R. 823, respectively).  Wolf chaired the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee and retired in 2014.  Culberson is his successor in that position and he reintroduced the bill in this Congress.  He was the first witness at the February 25 hearing.

Many topics were discussed, but in terms of the legislation, the focus was on three provisions:

  • To create a Board of Directors to govern NASA and submit its own budget request directly to Congress without going through the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB);
  • To appoint the NASA Administrator for a fixed term of 10 years; and
  • To use “long term” contracting for space transportation vehicles and payloads and other infrastructure intended for placement or operation in space or on celestial bodies and related services.

The Board of Directors concept is similar to the National Science Board that oversees the National Science Foundation (NSF). Fixed terms of office exist for several government positions. The FBI director is appointed for 10 years, the NSF Director for 6 years, and the Administrator of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) for 5 years, for example.

A hearing on an earlier version of this legislation was held by this committee in 2013 as have many others on the future of the U.S. human spaceflight program.  Therefore this hearing covered familiar ground, with committee Republicans, Culberson, and two of the other three witnesses lambasting the Obama Administration for cancelling the Moon/Mars Constellation program initiated during the George W. Bush Administration.  Those other two witnesses were Michael Griffin, who headed NASA under that Administration, and former NASA astronaut Eileen Collins, who was a member of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) during the Bush-Obama transition.  A third witness on the panel with Griffin and Collins, Cristina Chaplain from the Government Accountability Office (GAO), maintained neutrality on that topic.

The hearing lasted more than two hours.  Key takeaways and quotable quotes from the witnesses, in the order of their appearance at the hearing, include the following.

Rep. John Culberson.  “We need to make [NASA] less political, more professional, and give them the ability to see far into the future with knowledge and confidence that the Congress will be there behind them.”  Over the last 20 years “NASA has spent more than $20 billion on cancelled development programs. … No company, no entity, no agency of the Federal government can function in this environment.”  The point of having a Board of Directors that submits its own budget request directly to Congress is to enable Congress to know what “the best minds at NASA recommend” rather than going through OMB, because “the bean counters at OMB are the ones making the big decisions for our nation’s space program. It’s just unacceptable.”  Congress would “lay [the Board’s and OMB’s proposals] down side by side” and “see what is necessary to make those dreams of the future come true.”   The problem is “governance” and “if we want to ensure that America maintains its leadership role in outer space, if we want to make sure that we’re protecting the higher ground, and that our children and grandchildren will live to see interstellar flight,” this legislation should be passed, although he is open to modifications that will make it better.

Mike Griffin “Our space policy is bankrupt.”  As former Boeing official Jim Albaugh says, the Obama plan offers “no dream, no vision, no plan, no budget, and no remorse.”   Although stability across presidential administrations is desirable generally, it does not apply in this case.  “I would not want the desire [for stability] to prevent us from correcting the problems that have been created over the past seven years.”  Lauding the 2005, 2008 and 2010 NASA authorization bills that laid out a plan for human exploration, he believes the proper body to set long term goals is Congress and then Congress should ensure they are implemented. “When proposals are made by the executive branch that conflict with the existing law, why does Congress go along?”  The proposed legislation could be “one tool to produce constancy of purpose, but it’s just a tool.”  Congress needs to set the goals in law and ensure administrations follow them.

If NASA were to be run by a Board of Directors, it should not come up with its own budget proposal.  The White House will put forward a budget request and there is no point in having two.  The big problem is OMB, a “haven for largely unelected, unappointed, not very well qualified staff who seek to exercise a level of power and control in their area that their accomplishments have not earned.”  The comment was made in response to a question from Rep. Don Beyer (D-VA), who had been just been discussing morale at NASA with Collins.  Beyer joked that Griffin was not helping morale at OMB with comments like that.  Griffin replied “You know, that’s really too bad.”

Making the Administrator a term appointment might not change anything because that person still would report to the President and if a President wants to change the program, the Administrator either needs to comply or resign.  “I have no objection to considering a 5-year term, or 6-year term, or 8-year term, whatever length … nor do I have any objection with the way it’s done today.”  If he had been asked to change course as his successor was, he would have resigned.

Eileen Collins.  Program cancellations “made by bureaucracies, behind closed doors, without input by the people, are divisive, damaging, cowardly, and many times more expensive in the long run.”  The decision to cancel Constellation came as a surprise to everyone on NAC at the time.   “A continuity of purpose over many years and political administrations” will avoid “surprises like this [that] set us back years.”

To prepare for a human trip to Mars, “as a crewmember, I certainly would like to see the hardware tested on the moon’s surface first. … Policy leaders are asking astronauts to risk their lives on space journeys and it is our experience that testing in similar environments, like the moon, will minimize risk.”

A term of 10 years for a NASA Administrator is too long and could deter people from agreeing to serve.  Perhaps 5 or 6 years would be better.  If there is a Board of Directors, it is crucial that the members be “entirely independent.”  More generally, “We need to get the smartest people into NASA” and the way to do that is “having a mission they believe in.”

Cristina Chaplain.   “The concept of stability is an important one for NASA since projects require heavy investments both in terms of time and money.”   However, if NASA were governed by a Board of Directors, it “must be willing to hold program managers accountable as well as leadership by cancelling or restructuring programs that do not perform well.”  As for using multi-year contracts, “they are generally used for more production items and low-risk technology. Not too many NASA projects fit this description.”   DOD “has to demonstrate that there’s stable design, stable requirements [and] that there’s going to be substantial savings achieved in buying in bulk” before it can use a multiyear contract.    Although the bill talks about multiyear “contracting,” there are other “options for multiyear funding and appropriations” that could be explored.

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