Bolden and Holdren reaffirm support for asteroid mission as the next step to Mars

The head of NASA and the President’s science advisor told the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) this week that the agency’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) remained the next logical step of a long-term strategy to eventually send people to Mars, despite the protestations of some in Congress as well as “outside fan clubs.”

“The FY15 budget request keeps NASA on a steady path we’ve been following, a stepping-stone approach to meet the President’s challenge of sending humans to Mars in the 2030s,” NASA administrator Charles Bolden said. Bolden was referring to the speech made by President Obama four years ago this week at the Kennedy Space Center that called for a human mission to a near Earth asteroid by 2025 and human missions to Mars orbit in the mid-2030s. That speech, Bolden suggested, has been forgotten by a lot of people who question NASA’s exploration plan today.

“Some of you may say the same thing that some of the committee members ask me when I go to the Hill: ‘When did you guys decide you were going to do all this new stuff?’ We’ve been on this path since 2010,” Bolden said, recounting the goals laid out in Obama’s speech. “For a variety of reasons, it just kind of went over people’s heads. But it didn’t go over our heads.”

After the back-to-back presentations Wednesday morning by Bolden and Office of Science and Technology Policy director John Holdren, NAC chairman Steve Sqyures asked if the ARM was, in fact, consistent with the goals of that 2010 speech. “With respect to the goals outlined in the President’s speech, does that mission answer the mail?” he asked of the ARM.

“I think the current version of the NASA plan is consistent with the President’s vision,” Holdren responded. “The President’s vision was laid out with very broad brushstrokes.” The ARM, he said, fulfills several objectives in preparing for future exploration as well as science and commercialization. “I think it is an incredibly valuable mission in terms of the number of purposes it serves, largely using technologies and components that are being developed with current budgets.”

At the NAC meeting, as well as several previous appearances, Bolden laid out a broad exploration strategy that took NASA from Earth orbit operations on the ISS to the “proving ground” of cislunar space, including both the ARM and future potential missions in lunar orbit or the Earth-Moon Lagrange points, and then eventually to Mars. NASA’s current programs, including commercial crew, the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion, and ARM, are all “interlocking pieces” of the broader strategy, he said.

Bolden specifically defended development of the SLS, citing criticism that NASA’s exploration goals could alternatively be achieved with existing smaller launch vehicles and the use of on-orbit propellant depots. “When you start talking about the kinds of missions we’re talking about, numbers of launches required adds to the complexity and the risk incurred,” Bolden said. He added, though, if cryogenic propellant depots already existed, it would have been the “optimal” approach over SLS. “But when we looked at how much money it would take to do that, and how much time, we assumed we wanted to take the path of least resistance and the path of least risk, so we ended up where we are.”

Others, meanwhile, have agitated for different uses of SLS and other capabilities than the ARM, including a return to the Moon. “I think many of your outside fan clubs and cheerleading sections are not convinced” NASA has an exploration strategy, said NAC member Tom Young, citing the lack of details and funding profiles in NASA’s current plan. “It’s more of a passion and a dream than a strategy.”

“There are, of course, a lot of different voices out there in what you call our ‘fan club,’” Holdren said, “and some of them are people who say we absolutely have to go back to the Moon and establish a presence on the surface and it’s a terrible tragedy we haven’t done that. Those folks may never be persuaded that spending $60 to 80 billion to do that is not the best use of $60 to 80 billion in the environment that we now find ourselves. People are just not realistic about the costs of these things.”

Bolden and Holdren also argued for increased spending on technology development, which has been funded at levels well below the administration’s request in recent appropriations bills. “Technology development is not a high priority in the Congress right now, unfortunately,” Bolden said. “It’s a slow, painful process, but we continue to work to whittle away at the opposition.”

“I think we have an education problem in conveying the connection between advanced technology and the ability to do the missions that most in Congress think we need to do,” Holdren added. “They think we can just go to Mars tomorrow by pouring some more money in.” That last comment appeared to be a subtle dig at interest by some in Congress for a 2021 Mars flyby mission.

“Every member of Congress will stand up and say, ‘Of course NASA has to go to Mars. Of course we have to lead the world in planetary exploration,’” Holdren continued. “But they don’t get that we won’t get there without investments in advanced technology.”

Intel community willing to allow higher resolution commercial imagery

For the last few years, commercial satellite remote sensing company DigitalGlobe (and, before its merger with DigitalGlobe, GeoEye) has been lobbying the government to allow it to sell sharper satellite imagery that it’s currently allowed. DigitalGlobe is currently restricted to selling imagery with resolution no sharper than 0.5 meters per pixel, but has been pushing to change that limit to 0.25 meters. The company argued that companies in other nations, not subject to US regulations, are providing imagery that is starting to approach DigitalGlobe’s sharpness, and thus the company needs the ability to sell sharper images to compete.

This week, government officials have the strongest indication to date that they’re willing to change the resolution limits. Speaking at the Geoint conference in Tampa on Tuesday, Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that the intelligence community had reached “consensus” on supporting DigitalGlobe’s call for revised resolution regulations. “The intelligence community supports a measure that would allow industry to provider higher-resolution commercial satellite imagery,” he told Aviation Week.

Those comments were confirmed later at the conference by Letitia Long, director of the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency (NGA). However, the process to change those resolution limits requires consultation with several other agencies outside of the intelligence community as well as the White House. She didn’t know when a final decision would come, Space News reported, but the company is hoping for a decision before the August launch of its WorldView-3 satellite, which is designed to produce imagery with resolutions as sharp as 0.31 meters.

It’s unclear if the change in resolution limits would be tied to a review of the overall national commercial remote sensing policy, which does not explicitly include any resolution limits. That policy was last updated 11 years ago, in April 2003; the administration has been gradually performing reviews and updates of “sectoral” space policies, like the national space transportation policy updated last November.

GAO report offers good news, but also warnings, about performance of NASA programs

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) released on Tuesday its annual assessment of “large-scale” NASA projects. The good news of the report was that NASA, by and large, is doing well in terms of cost and schedule performance of its major programs: an average cost growth of 3% and launch delay of 2.8 months for 14 selected programs in their implementation phase, compared to average cost growth of 3.9% and launch delay of 4.0 months in 2013. Those figures exclude the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST); when included, the average cost growth in the 2014 report rises to 37.8% and the average launch delay to 6.6 months given that large program’s major overruns. However, the averages with JWST included are still an improvement over 2013.

Prior to the report’s release, NASA officials had been emphasizing the good performance they were seeing on most of their missions. “More and more the last few years, our missions are coming in on schedule and on budget,” said Craig Tupper, director of the resources management division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate (SMD), in a briefing to the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) science committee last week. “That certainly helps us to maintain stability in the program.”

There are, though, a few problems with the portfolio of NASA programs. The GAO report flagged the Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) mission, whose cost has increased by at least 15 percent. That’s triggered a review and replan of the mission, which will likely miss its planned May 2017 launch date. “That 556 number is going to go up a lot,” Tupper warned at the NAC meeting, referring to the original estimated development cost of the spacecraft of $556 million.

The problem with ICESat-2 is due to a “very challenging instrument development,” said Peg Luce, deputy director of the earth science division of NASA SMD, later at the same meeting. NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, which is developing the spacecraft’s sole instrument is putting the “cream of the crop in in-house instrument development” on the program to get the laser altimeter instrument on track. The revised plan for the mission will be presented to NASA’s Program Management Council at the end of May, she said.

Potentially bigger issues than the overrun on ICESat-2, through, are uncertainties about much larger programs. The GAO report notes that nearly three quarters of the overall budget for major programs currently belongs to only four programs: JWST, the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion, and Commercial Crew. “Any cost or schedule overrun on NASA’s largest, most complex projects could have a ripple effect on the portfolio and has the potential to postpone or even cancel altogether projects in earlier development stages,” the report warns.

The GAO is particularly concerned that, based on where these largest programs currently are, the risk for overruns is high. “JWST will soon enter integration and testing—the point at which cost growth and schedule delays are most likely,” the report states. “Additionally, there are questions about the realism of the SLS and Orion cost estimates.” SLS and Orion aren’t included in the cost and schedule figures above because the programs are still in their formulation phase, although NASA officials have stated that—at least for now—those programs remain on track.

Senate committee approves commercial launch license/permit bill

Largely overlooked last week in the hubbub about hearings on the NASA budget proposal, a new NASA authorization bill, and relations with Russia was a move by a Senate committee on Wednesday to approve legislation to adjust the commercial launch licensing system for reusable suborbital vehicles.

S. 2140, introduced last month by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) with several bipartisan co-sponsors, would allow suborbital RLVs to hold both an experimental permit and a launch license. Under current law, vehicles that hold an experimental permit—which allows for test, but not revenue-generating, flights—have to surrender that permit when receiving a full-fledged launch license.

Some in the industry sought the ability to retain less-restrictive permits so they could be used for test flights, while using the license for commercial flights. “I think anybody who is building multiple vehicles over time will want to have, at different times, those vehicles on a permit and operating under a license,” Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said in a luncheon talk at the Goddard Memorial Symposium outside Washington, DC, last month.

What the Senate Commerce Committee approved without discussion, as part of a basket of other bills, was an amended version of S.2140 offered by Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), one of the bill’s original co-sponsors, that achieves the same aim, with minor changes to the language of the section.

“Innovative industries like commercial spaceflight are advancing rapidly, and we can’t allow outdated laws to stifle progress. Unfortunately that’s exactly what’s happening,” Rubio said in a statement. “These laws did not anticipate what commercial companies are now doing with vehicle testing and commercial spaceflights, and therefore have caused progress to slow.” (It’s worth noting that the “outdated” law amended by this bill is less than ten years old: the ability of the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation to issue experimental permits was established with the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act, passed in late 2004.)

Rubio’s statement also included a word of thanks from Whitesides. “This legislation addresses a technical issue that will help the commercial spaceflight industry develop and deploy reusable space vehicles quickly and safely,” he said.

The substance, or lack thereof, of NASA’s ban on Russian cooperation

The news last week that NASA was cutting off cooperation with the Russian government—with the very large exception of International Space Station (ISS) operations—attracted a lot of attention in the space industry and the general public, which continues to the present. “NASA is cutting ties with Russia. But it’s not that simple,” reads the headline of a Washington Post article today. That headline is partially correct: it’s not that simple because NASA isn’t cutting ties with Russia. In fact, the ban on cooperation is now so riddled with holes that it actually bans very little.

In testimony before the House Appropriations Committee’s Commerce, Justice, and Science subcommittee on Tuesday, NASA administrator Charles Bolden said there were exemptions in addition to the one for ISS operations. “On a case-by-case basis, we get an activity exempted from any prohibition” through an interagency review process, he said. Exemptions at time of the hearing, he said, cover the COSPAR meeting in Moscow in August, a Russian instrument on the Mars Curiosity rover, and three different, unnamed activities for which exemptions had been requested.

At a meeting Wednesday afternoon of the NASA Advisory Council’s space committee, NASA officials said additional activities done in cooperation with the Russians had been exempted form the ban. Paul Hertz, director of NASA’s astrophysics division, said that a joint activity to make mirrors for the Spektr-RG (or Spectrum-X-Gamma) mission has been exempted. NASA associate administrator of science John Grunsfeld said that the only joint activity between NASA and the Russian government in science that had not been exempted was a joint science definition team for Russia’s Venera-D mission. “We’re still asking the question,” he said of efforts to get it exempted.

So what’s left? A NASA spokesperson told Space News that a few other activities were affected by the ban, including a meeting about a Siberian earth sciences project and testing of an aircraft model in a Russian wind tunnel.

That lack of substance to the policy didn’t stop one individual from criticizing in at a Senate hearing Wednesday. “I support well targeted sanctions on Russia that will have a direct impact on President Putin’s thinking,” said Susan Eisenhower, chairman emeritus of the Eisenhower Institute and granddaughter of President Dwight D. Eisenhower. However, she added, “I believe that rolling back space cooperation could be counterproductive and damaging to our national security and our long-term space agenda.”

Those reasons, she said, include the argument that national security is enhanced by cooperation, that the ban could backfire by alienating those in Russia who are friendly to the US while strengthening hardliners, and that the safety of human spaceflight depends on trust. “It is already easier to terminate space cooperation than it is to get it started again,” she said. “We will not be able to meet our long-term goals in space without it.”

Subcommittee quickly approves amended NASA authorization bill

The House Science Committee’s space subcommittee quickly approved an amended version of HR 4412 during a markup session this morning that lasted less than half an hour. Instead of the bill text as filed, the subcommittee adopted an amendment in the nature of a substitute with several changes to the bill introduced earlier this week.

The revised bill amends the provision in the new bill requiring NASA to develop an exploration roadmap, requiring such a report 180 days after the bill’s enactment (instead of one year as previously.) The bill includes a new section on the Commercial Crew program, specifying that “safety is the highest priority” in the selection of new contracts for the program, as well as an independent cost and schedule estimate due to Congress 30 days after the new contracts are awarded.

The amended bill no longer bars NASA from spending money on its Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). It does, though, require a report within 180 days of enactment on budget and schedule for the mission, as well as what technologies the ARM will use that can also be used for Mars “which could not be gained by lunar missions.” Added to the amended bill is a provision requiring a report within 60 days on the Mars 2021 flyby mission concept proposed by Inspiration Mars, to be followed by an assessment “of whether the proposal for a Mars Flyby Mission to be launched in 2021 is in the strategic interests of the United States in space exploration.”

On termination liability, the amended bill prohibits reserving funds for termination liability for covered programs (SLS, Orion, JWST, and ISS) and requires NASA to give 12 months notice before NASA could terminate those programs either for cause or for convenience [corrected to reflect language in the bill].

Unlike last year’s contentious, partisan debate, subcommittee and full committee leadership of both parties praised the bipartisan nature of this revised bill. “The bill and amendment for subcommittee this morning reflect a true bipartisan agreement,” Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS), chairman of the space subcommittee. “The ranking member and I don’t always see eye-to-eye, but the provisions contained in this agreement are a testament that Republicans and Democrats can work together in an effective manner for the good of the nation.”

The only sour note to the bipartisan harmony was from full committee vice-chairman Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who said that while he supported the bill overall, he disagreed with the long-term goal of the exploration roadmap of sending humans to Mars. “I believe it is an expensive folly to tie the American government’s space program so closely to the goal of putting human beings on Mars,” he said. “The odds are too great that this will result in a huge waste of very limited resources that could be spent on goals that are much more certain and much more beneficial to our people today. When one tried to cross a bridge too far, somebody’s going to get soaked.”

New NASA authorization bill makes only minor changes to last year’s version

At 9 am today, the space subcommittee of the House Science Committee will mark up a new version of a NASA authorization bill, formally introduced earlier this week. The new bill, HR 4412, is very similar to the bill the Science Committee marked up last summer, HR 2687, a bill that generated unusually strong partisan divisions. There are some differences, though, between the two bills, and some of the major ones are summarized below:

  • Unlike last year’s bill, which authorized spending for two years (fiscal years 2014 and 2015), the new bill covers only one year—fiscal year 2014. Yes, this bill authorizes spending that was already appropriated three months ago. Needless to say, the authorization and appropriated funding levels match up.
  • As in the case with last year’s bill, the new bill blocks NASA from spending money on its “Asteroid Retrieval Mission” (which NASA has been calling the “Asteroid Redirect Mission” since last summer) until it completes a number of reports. The new bill requires that those reports also assess the technologies that ARM provides to support planetary defense applications.
  • The bill includes language addressing the reservations of funds for termination liability, as in the previous bill, but with some changes. The old bill stated that NASA “shall direct prime contractors not to reserve funds,” while the new bill states that NASA will not “require the reservation of funds by the prime contractor.” The new bill also directs that funds already reserved for termination liability “be promptly used to make maximum progress” for those programs (SLS, Orion, ISS, and JWST) and notify Congress 120 days before initiating the termination of a contract for convenience of cause. The older bill expressly prohibited NASA from terminating contracts for convenience for covered programs.
  • Section 215, which in the original bill required the next phase of NASA’s commercial crew program to be “under a cost-type contract”, now deals with Aerospace Safety Advisory Council (ASAP) advice, requiring NASA to report on advice provided by ASAP that it plans to follow or not, and why. That matches an amendment to the bill made during the markup to the earlier bill last July.
  • Section 711 of the original bill, which established a fixed six-year term for the NASA administrator, is not in the new bill.
  • The new bill contains two new sections, 305 and 502, that require NASA to use the ISS and related commercial services for science and technology demonstration missions “wherever it is practical and cost effective to do so.”
  • The section of the bill covering Space Act Agreements, which originally specified that any such agreement be used when standard contracts or other instruments are “not feasible or appropriate”, now refers only to funded Space Act Agreements.
  • A provision in the original bill that provided a five-year extension of commercial launch indemnification has been removed, as Congress already passed a three-year extension.
  • Language in several places in the earlier bill about cooperation with international partners is expanded in the new bill to include commercial partners and other not-for-profit partners.
  • The new bill includes, in section 203, a requirement for NASA to conduct a naming competition for the SLS and the overall “deep space human exploration program.”

Bolden and House appropriators spar on various issues

NASA administrator Charles Bolden appeared before the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee in a hearing about NASA’s fiscal year 2015 budget request Tuesday morning—and into the afternoon as well, as the hearing, which started at 9:30 am, didn’t wrap up until about 1 pm. The first part of the hearing, lasting more than an hour, went into a report on NASA security issues, but that still left more than two hours to go into various budgetary and other policy issues, with the debate between committee members and Bolden getting heated at times. Some of the key issues discussed:

Commercial Crew: As in past hearings and other appearances, Bolden emphasized the need for the commercial crew program to be fully funded—$848 million—in the administration’s 2015 budget request in order to keep the program on schedule to begin flights in 2017. “If we don’t get the finding that we requested, we’re going to slip again,” he said, referring to earlier slips in the program that Bolden blamed on Congress not fully funding the program.

On that last point, subcommittee chairman Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) took issue. “I think you’ve misled people,” Wolf said. “Congress has provided a lot of funding for commercial crew, particularly once you take into account the larger fiscal situation. There’s never been a year that it was zero,” he said. “The appropriation has been at or above the authorized level in all the years but one.”

“I’m not sure where the [committee] staff says that you’ve given us more than we’ve asked. That’s just inaccurate.” Bolden responded, who appeared to take Wolf’s criticism personally. “Every time I come here, my integrity is impugned,” he said. “I am tired of having my integrity impugned by members of the committee and the staff.”

The squabble between Wolf and Bolden appeared to be based on a misunderstanding: Wolf was referring to figures in the NASA authorization act of 2010, which authorized $312 million for commercial crew in 2011 and $500 million in 2012 and 2013; Bolden was referring to the figures in the administration’s budget request, which have been much higher in recent years and not fully funded by Congress, but were on or close to the authorized amounts in 2011 and 2013 (pre-sequester), but fell about $100 million short in 2012.

A little later in the hearing, Bolden expressed his regrets for the outburst. “Mr. Chairman, I apologize for losing my temper,” he said. “I get hot sometimes and I think I misunderstood you.”

Later in the hearing, Bolden said he couldn’t go into details about the ongoing competition for commercial crew because of the procurement “blackout” that will last under contracts are awarded in August. While three companies currently have funded commercial crew awards—Boeing, Sierra Nevada, and SpaceX—he professed ignorance as to who would be competing.

“I don’t know who the providers are, I don’t know what platform they’re planning to use,” he said. “Sierra Nevada, I hope, is one. Sierra Nevada, to my knowledge, is not using Russian engines.” When Rep. John Culberson said that both Sierra Nevada and Boeing are using the Atlas V, powered by a Russian-built RD-180 engine, Bolden responded, “I didn’t know that.”

Relations with Russia: The current state of Russian relations, particularly in light of a memo last week breaking off cooperation between NASA and the Russian government with the exception of ISS, also came up in the hearing. Bolden said that, despite the new policy, relations with Roscosmos are doing well. Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) asked about contingency plans for the ISS in the event relations worsen. “The contingency for what you’re addressing is maintaining the relationship,” Bolden responded, blaming the “alarmist” media in both the US and Russia for misreporting that the ban covered all NASA cooperation with Russia. “When [Roscosmos director Oleg] Ostapenko and I talked [last week], he was very comforted that our relationship had not been broken, had not changed.”

Indeed, later in the hearing, Bolden suggested that there was a growing number of exceptions to the policy suspending cooperation NASA cooperation with the Russian government. “On a case-by-case basis, we get an activity excepted from any prohibition of cooperation,” he said, through the use of an interagency review process. In addition to the original exception for ISS operations, Bolden said there are now exceptions covering NASA participating in the COSPAR conference being held in Moscow in August, as well as a Russian-provided instrument on NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover, with exceptions for three other activities currently under consideration. “They are lesser types of projects, or projects in the making, that haven’t started yet,” he said of the unnamed projects. It wasn’t clear, from those comments, exactly what was blocked from cooperation now.

SOFIA: Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA), whose district is adjacent to includes part of NASA’s Ames Research Center, questioned Bolden about the decision to cut funding for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) airborne observatory, a program run out of Ames. [A spokesman for Rep. Honda noted Wednesday that part of Ames/Moffett Federal Airfield is just inside the boundaries of his district.] “What specific scientific and technical review and analysis was performed during the FY15 budget formulation process to support the proposal to cancel SOFIA?”

Bolden said the plans to mothball SOFIA are still a “proposal,” and that a joint task force of NASA and the German space agency DLR were still reviewing options, with a report from them due by the end of this month. “We have not made the final determination that SOFIA will be put into mothballs,” he said. “We are still looking for ways to save SOFIA.”

“Your response is appreciated, but not sufficient in my mind,” Honda responded. Bolden said later that, if science from SOFIA was sufficiently compelling, “my guess is that there will be people standing in line to add their funds to maintaining SOFIA.”

Planetary Science: As in recent years, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), whose district includes JPL, questioned the level of funding for planetary science in NASA’s budget, including extended mission funding as well as the Mars 2020 flagship mission. “I’m concerned about the profile for this mission,” he said of Mars 2020, “which is backloaded, as well as repeated disquieting rumors I’ve been hearing regarding slipping the launch date to 2022.”

Bolden said Mars 2020 was on schedule. “Hopefully everyone will tell you that the 2015 budget does support Mars 2020 in 2020,” he said. As for extended mission funding, in particular missions like Opportunity and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Bolden offered partial support for such funding. “I think extended missions are great until they start to jeopardize the ability to fly new missions,” he said. “The totality of our extended missions today is keeping us from being able to do some of the exciting things that we would really like to do.”

Asteroid Redirect Mission: Rep. Wolf raised questions about the support there was for NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). “The mission does not seem to have captured the imaginations among Congress or the American public,” he said, adding that he understood House authorizers, in their new draft bill, would prohibit spending on the mission.

Later in the hearing, Culberson brought up criticism of ARM brought up last year by Steve Squyres, the planetary scientist who chairs the NASA Advisory Council. “The asteroid retrieval mission, as Chairman Wolf has said, is just not generating–”

Bolden interrupted. “Mr. Culberson, quite the contrary,” he said, saying that Squyres’s comments are from last year. “I think if you brought Steve Squyres in here today, he would say something different to you.”

SLS/Orion: Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) pressed Bolden on funding for the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket and Orion spacecraft, which in the FY15 budget request is below the levels in the FY14 final appropriations bill. “There is some concern that OMB and OSTP may be out of step with most Americans about the fact that Americans want the United States to lead the world in human exploration of space beyond low Earth orbit,” he said. He asked Bolden if it would make sense downselect to a single commercial crew provider, thus requiring less money, and using that funds instead for SLS and Orion to keep them on schedule.

Bolden’s answer was succinct: “No, sir.” He again emphasized that commercial crew required full funding to be on schedule for 2017, while SLS and Orion are being managed to be ready together in 2017. “My advice to this committee, and all committees, has been to allow me the flexibility to spend as necessary such that SLS and Orion get to the finish line together. If I had finished SLS in 2013, I would have parked it in a barn somewhere because I have no crew vehicle to put on it.”

Before asking for that flexibility, he had another, more general plea for appropriators. “We’ve got to start talking to each other and understanding why you pay me to do what you pay me to do.” At the end of today’s hearing, there was plenty of talking, but perhaps not as much understanding.

Mikulski wants to up the new budget to flat

While the White House proposed a fiscal year 2015 budget that cut NASA by about one percent over 2014, the chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee said Monday she will try to change that.

“My goal for NASA is to make sure we’re at least at the 2014 level,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) in a speech Monday at the Maryland Space Business Roundtable at the University of Maryland, Space News reported. She added that she would try to even increase NASA’s budget above the $17.65 billion it received in fiscal year 2014, if the funding could be found.

Mikulski, in reports about the speech, wasn’t specific about what programs she thought needed that additional funding she promised. She spoke about the James Webb Space Telescope, but that program was fully funded in the request. She also, SpacePolicyOnline reported, supported the administration’s decision to seek an extension of International Space Station operations to at least 2024, and noted the cargo missions to the station launched by Orbital Sciences Corporation from Wallops Island, Virginia. She was “noncommittal” about the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA), the airborne observatory whose funding was cut in the budget proposal, telling Space News that “we’re doing our diligence” on the project.

Mikulski’s committee is not scheduled to hold a hearing on NASA’s budget request until May 1, when NASA administrator Charles Bolden is slated to testify before the committee’s Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) subcommittee, also chaired by Mikulski. However, later this morning, Bolden will appear before the House Appropriations Committee’s CJS subcommittee at 9:30 am, testifying about NASA’s FY15 budget proposal as well as “oversight of NASA security”, a hot topic for CJS subcommittee chairman Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA).

A full schedule of hearings next week

The week of April 7 is shaping up to be an unusually busy one for space policy, with no fewer than four hearings on various aspects of civil and commercial space, including markups of two bills.

On Tuesday, April 8, the House Appropriations Committee’s Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) subcommittee is holding a hearing on NASA’s fiscal year 2015 budget proposal at 9:30 am. The hearing also includes a mention of “oversight of NASA security” with former attorney general Richard Thornburgh joining NASA administrator Charles Bolden as witnesses. That’s a reference to an independent report chaired by Thornburgh that Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), chairman of the CJS subcommittee, used to criticize NASA for a poor “persistent organizational culture.”

On Wednesday, April 9, at 9 am, the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee will hold a markup session on a new draft of a NASA authorization act. Details about the bill, and how it might differ from an authorization bill the committee approved last July, aren’t yet available. The markup session will likely be brief: another Science Committee subcommittee has a hearing scheduled for the same room at 10 am.

On the other side of Capitol Hill, the Senate Commerce Committee’s space subcommittee will hold a hearing Wednesday at 10 am on “From Here to Mars”. The hearing features a mix of witnesses broadly discussing NASA’s exploration plans and issues with international and commercial cooperation. NASA associate administrator Bill Gerstenmaier will testify, along with Susan Eisenhower, chairman emeritus of the Eisenhower Institute; former astronaut Leroy Chiao; and NanoRacks managing director Jeffrey Manber.

That afternoon, the full Senate Commerce Committee will convene to consider a batch of bills and nominations. Among the legislation up for consideration is S. 2140, a bill introduced in March by Sen. Martin Heinrich (D-NM) that would allow commercial suborbital launch providers to simultaneously hold both a launch license and an experimental permit. Currently, a company that receives a launch license has to surrender any experimental permit it holds for that vehicles, but companies like Virgin Galactic have argued that they should be able to retain their permits for use on test flights. Sens. Marco Rubio (R-FL) and Tom Udall (D-NM) are original cosponsors of the bill, and Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Roger Wicker (R-MS) have signed on since then.