Congress, NASA

Passing the audition

For all the talk about a rapid confirmation of Charles Bolden and Lori Garver to be NASA administrator and deputy administrator, it’s a bit ironic that Wednesday’s confirmation hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee started late. A recess plus an “executive session” to deal with several bills that lasted much longer than the scheduled 10 minutes meant that the hearing started about an hour late. Moreover, while Bolden and Garver were scheduled to be the first to appear, they had to wait for a long line of members of Congress and others to provide statements endorsing all the nominees under consideration, not just Bolden and Garver. There was also the added schedule pressure of a 4 pm meeting on health care that some committee members, including chairman Sen. John Rockefeller (D-WV), had to attend.

Given all that, the hearing got off on a sightly awkward footing. Rather than allowing Bolden and Garver to give their opening statements, Rockefeller launched immediately into questions. “Obviously your backgrounds are fantastic, and there’s no question you’re the right people for the jobs,” he said, then noted that we’re on the eve of the 40th anniversary of Apollo 11, and mentioned a discussion he had once with Sen. Bill Nelson. “I questioned, did NASA really have a future? People refer to what has been done, very few refer to what might be done… If we’re going to do NASA, it’s going to be done right.” He continued: “I need bolstering on NASA, personally, I need bolstering. I wonder what specific proposals… what do you propose to do to take what was the inspiration of the nation, which it’s not today, the inspiration of the nation… what do you plan to do to change this posture?”

Bolden and Garver then attempted to respond to the question by going through their opening statements. Bolden in particular cited four challenges “if we choose to lead” in space:

  1. “Build upon our investment” in the International Space Station and “safely and efficiently” fly out the remaining shuttle missions;
  2. “Accelerate with a sense of urgency” the development of the next-generation of launch systems [not mentioning Ares, Orion, or Constellation by name] to support human space exploration;
  3. Enhance NASA’s “credible scientific, technological, and engineering leadership” to better understand the Earth’s environment;
  4. “Inspire a rising generation” to focus on careers in science, technology, engineering, and math and “making NASA programs relevant to the American public.”

Those answers, though, weren’t sufficient for Rockefeller. “I characterized NASA as adrift,” he said, and pressed them for more details on how they would cope with this. Bolden and Garver then responded with their discussion of concerns about technology development, inspiring youth, observing and understanding the Earth. “The nation has to decide where it wants to go,” Bolden said. “I think it’s beyond low Earth orbit, but we also have to look inward.”

The rest of the hearing went pretty smoothly: Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) asked about the role of the ISS (noting that we have invested “hundreds of millions of dollars” building it), while Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) brought up the Augustine committee’s work and the fact that NASA had been “starved for funds” for the last decade. Finally, Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) brought up a local issue, NASA’s use of White Sands, and that was it.

One thing that struck me listening to the hearing is that both Bolden and Garver, on multiple occasions, mentioned commercial and entrepreneurial ventures, both as something NASA can enable and as something that can help NASA carry out its mission. “The International Space Station represents what I like to call a bridge to exploration beyond low Earth orbit,” Bolden said in response to Sen. Hutchison. “It is the way that we will allow commercial ventures, entrepreneurial ventures, to have a place where they can seek to go to carry cargo, and one of these days, maybe even carry crew.” And in his opening statement: “I dream of a day when any American can launch into space and see the magnificence and grandeur of our home planet Earth, as I have been blessed to do.”

The hearing adjourned without taking any action on the nominations, although it’s clear it’s a matter of when, not if, they’ll be confirmed. The unofficial goal widely discussed is to have them confirmed in time for the Apollo 11 40th anniversary celebrations, but those begin in just over a week. It’s worth noting that a press release issued earlier this week by NASA about a roundtable discussion on the history and legacy of Apollo notes that event will include remarks by acting administrator Chris Scolese.

5 comments to Passing the audition

  • Bolden’s last statement before hearing from Udall’s “save WSMR, please” question was most interesting. I went through the video and transcribed it:

    “Franklin Chang-Diaz who is my idol, another astronaut who now is in the entrepreneurial space business, has a VASIMER rocket engine that if it works, and I think it will, will take us to Mars in 39 days instead of 8-11 months. NASA provided him a VERY small stipend to get started to bring his project to Technology Readiness Level 1,2 and 3. And now he’s at the point where its ready to fly but he has done that with what they call venture capitalists, private investors. That’s what Lori and I talk about. We can’t, the government can not fund everything we need to do. But we can inspire and open the door for commercial, entrepreneurial entities to become involved, to be come partners with NASA in this research and development that will enabled things to come about. No, you can’t make enough money for NASA to do the things that I think you want to do. But together we can inspire young people to want to put their money that they do have and are looking for places to invest into science and technology and together I think we will go back to the moon and eventually we will go on to Mars and other places even deeper into the solar system.”

    Inspiring kids to try and do slightly better in math is good, but if you can inspire them to invest their own money in space ventures as adults then you’ve really done something useful. IMHO, the true legacy of Apollo is Elon, Bezos, Branson, Carmack, Tito, Bigelow, etc who saw what was possible and decided to go do it themselves instead of waiting on the Government to do it for them.

  • Habitat Hermit

    Extremely good point by Michael Mealling.

  • Amiable Hermit

    it is my belief that what you wrote is applicable to the Direct Team as well as the Commercial Ventures… they saw an approach that was not being explored fully in the current technological climate, and chose to do something about it… yesterday after 3 1/2 years they got what they had always asked for, an independent review by industry experts (Areospace Corp) with 4 hours of questioning…
    I don’t count on one architecture to do the whole job, be it Earth to ISS or LEO, or Earth to LMO, Landing and setting up Moon Bases or LO ISS, and fuel depots at L1 or L2, or the next step to take man and robots to Mars Orbit and Landing, or NEO… I believe that all possible permutations of existing and developing LV’s and Space Vehicles need to be considered and worked on, each suited to their mission capabilites… it has been the sad reality, that we have depended on single LV and Space Vehicle capabilities for 60 years and now we must loose that mindset and develop a fleet that we can take to Space UTILIZATION… Exploration of Deep Space by 2030, ie Mars and beyond yes; but begin NOW in the next 15 years the Utilization of LEO and the Space between Earth and the Moon for the use of ALL MANKIND… Like Bolden said, we MUST get to the point, and soon, when any person, with the desire and good reason, has access to Space at a reasonable cost… either as researcher, Astronaut, or space tourist…
    it took the areonautic industry less than 40 years to go from a novelty to commerciallization, where travel across vast distance by people carriers was common place… if we take the end of WW2 as the novelty stage, we have spent way too long in the pioneer stage of rocket development… let’s get on with it…
    btw, I was born in 1948… so I have waited a long time to see this day… ;( and I am impatient to see results ;)

  • […] der heutigen Anhörung gibt es wohl keinen Zweifel, dass C. Bolden neuer NASA-Chef […]

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