Congress, NASA

Bolden “flayed” at hearing? Not exactly.

To read some of the media accounts of yesterday’s hearing by the Senate Commerce Committee’s space subcommittee on NASA’s FY2011 budget proposal, NASA administrator Charles Bolden had a bad day. He faced “skeptical” senators who “vowed to fight” the new budget as they went on to “grill” Bolden and even “flayed” him. A closer examination, though, suggests that the hearing wasn’t nearly as dire as some of those accounts suggest.

“There’s a lot that’s good in this budget from this senator’s perspective,” subcommittee chairman Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) said in his opening statement, citing increased funding for aeronautics and science as well as the extension of the ISS beyond 2015 and new technology development efforts. The key problem, he said, is that the way the budget was rolled out gave the perception that the administration was killing the human spaceflight program. Among other things, he wanted a clear statement of the long-term destination of human space exploration (which, as he’s stated previously, he believes should be Mars), and “continued testing of a booster as a technology testbed, a robust heavy-lift vehicle program, and the continued development of a spacecraft for the missions beyond low Earth orbit”, which Nelson later called “Rocket X”.

For one of those concerns, Nelson seem mollified by comments by Bolden that Mars was the “ultimate” goal for human space exploration. “General Bolden, you have just made some news,” Nelson said, then pressed Bolden to confirm that his statements had been vetted and approved by the White House. How meaningful they are is another story, though: Mars has notionally been seen as a long-term destination for human spaceflight, but Bolden could only say that the new plan would allow humans to go to Mars sooner than under the previous plan, and at one point Bolden said that even with an “infinite” amount of money he couldn’t get humans to Mars in the next decade.

Regarding any sort of heavy-lift launch vehicle testing for “Rocket X” or another vehicle, Bolden said he was always welcome to conduct additional testing, but only if it could fit into the budget. “We need to look at prudent ways to test, but not too much,” he said. “So any testing that I would be allowed to do for the testing of a heavy-lift launch vehicle would be fantastic, within fiscal constraints.”

Bolden did get grilled, and maybe even flayed, by the ranking member of the subcommittee, Sen. David Vitter (R-LA), who was particularly strident in his attacks on NASA deputy administrator, Lori Garver. Vitter believes Garver is the person responsible for the new budget and in an exchange with Bolden that nearly devolved to a game of “gotcha” tried to get him to admit it. (Sen. George LeMieux (R-FL), the only other senator in attendance, also tried to Bolden to identify who developed the budget proposal; Bolden declined to answer, saying that such “predecisional” discussions were protected.)

“I will fight with every ounce of energy I have to defeat this budget or anything like it,” Vitter said in his opening statement. But one wonders if his attacks on the agency’s number two official—implying to some degree that Bolden is more of a figurehead not involved in the decisionmaking process for the agency’s future—might win some sympathy for both of them, and the agency, in some quarters.

30 comments to Bolden “flayed” at hearing? Not exactly.

  • I think you’re being very kind Jeff, that hearing was very tough for Bolden. Nelson could not really attack Bolden that much because Bolden is his choice for administrator but there was very little that was positive about the hearing for the budget. I think you qouted all the positive comments! Let’s see what happens today at the science committee hearing…

  • Robert G. Oler

    Bolden did very well and the opposition for the plan was mostly ill informed, shrill, and is stuck on “save my jobs”.

    Constellation is dead. This is just how Death Panels (grin) work

    Robert G. Oler

  • Major Tom

    “that hearing was very tough for Bolden”

    No, it wasn’t. Aside from Vitter’s weird tirade about Garver, it was a fair hearing.

    And regardless of how the hearing went, the draft Senate FY 2011 authorization bill for NASA endorses the Administration’s basic plan: get more than one commercial crew provider operational by 2016, extend ISS to 2020, get an HLV underway ASAP, and develop other, actual exploration capabilities.

    Ares I and Orion are reduced to internal 90-day studies to see if there’s any way they can fit under the new plan — Ares I maybe as a test vehicle and Orion maybe as an industry-proposed option — without undermining the commercial approach. There’s actually stronger language in the bill about Shuttle termination than Ares I/Orion termination.

    See:

    http://www.flightglobal.com/blogs/hyperbola/2010/02/senator-hutchinsons-wish-list.html

    FWIW…

  • Mark R. Whittington

    “Ares I and Orion are reduced to internal 90-day studies to see if there’s any way they can fit under the new plan — Ares I maybe as a test vehicle and Orion maybe as an industry-proposed option — without undermining the commercial approach.”

    Incorrect. The draft legislation actually contemplates the acceleration of Constellation vehicles, with questions like funding being answered in the 90 day study. Please do not spread disinformation.

  • Mark R. Whittington

    Rob is largely correct about the hearings, though Nelson was certainly more gentle than Vitter. The whole on to Mars things is a little disconcerting. It would be irony, especially for those people dancing a jig about the new policy, if it morphs into a “Mars by 2035!” program.

  • googaw

    Senator Nelson: “continued testing of a booster as a technology testbed, a robust heavy-lift vehicle program, and the continued development of a spacecraft for the missions beyond low Earth orbit”, which Nelson later called “Rocket X”.

    Note the word “continued”. In the hearing Senator Nelson reminded his fellow Senators and panelists that we are calling it “Rocket X now.” In other words, it’s a continuation of Constellation and Ares under a new name, under the guise of what was supposed to be a cutting-edge HLV technologies research program. They will raid the other technology research budgets (depots, inflatables, etc.) and perhaps even COTS in order to fund the project formerly known as Constellation at Constellation-type levels.

  • Apparently some of you watched the hearings with one eye through a keyhole. Bolden WAS grilled, his responces were disjointed and he talked in circles at times. When pressed, several times, by Vitter as to who the actual authour of the “radical” budget was, Bolden NEVER really answered the quiestion- in fact he never full and directly answered most of the questions. The Obama budget that some of you seem to see as such good candy in some deep trouble in the Congress… that is… when you look with both eyes.

  • Doug Lassiter

    I was dismayed to hear Senator Vitter dismiss the current NASA plans with the silly statement that Jack Kennedy would never have done it this way. Bringing up Jack Kennedy and the Apollo program is utterly irrelevant to the current trouble. Kennedy had a NASA budget roughly ten times larger than Bolden now does. So is Vitter criticizing the Obama administration for not proposing a NASA budget ten times larger? He should come right out and say that, if that’s what he means. Criticizing someone for not setting inspiring enough goals just like someone who once did with a vastly larger budget is just hot air.

    I too was not unimpressed by Bolden’s performance. He did OK with what the administration had given him, which wasn’t much. That he didn’t have answers to all the questions is pretty simple. His agency didn’t have any time to produce answers to the questions. The criticism that the administration didn’t adequately include the agency in developing plans for HSF is dead on, however, and that’s why he didn’t have them. That he refused to blame Lori Garver for killing Constellation is completely understandable. That question had no place in a hearing about “challenges and opportunities”.

  • Lori Lori Lori!!!

    I love how the truth of Lori Garver is starting to come to the surface! She was the main player in the entire NASA budget proposal for FY11!

  • Robert G. Oler

    Mark R. Whittington wrote @ February 25th, 2010 at 8:29 am

    Rob is largely correct about the hearings, though Nelson was certainly more gentle than Vitter. The whole on to Mars things is a little disconcerting. It would be irony, especially for those people dancing a jig about the new policy, if it morphs into a “Mars by 2035!” program.,,

    you are goofy

    this is from a guy who was chortling about how the next President can change the current program (or the one that is being put forward)…

    there is no contemplation of acceleration of Constellation..there is a study. the program of record is dying…this is how the sausage is made.

    Robert G. Oler

  • Robert G. Oler

    Max Peck wrote @ February 25th, 2010 at 9:26 am

    Apparently some of you watched the hearings with one eye through a keyhole. Bolden WAS grilled, his responces were disjointed and he talked in circles at times. When pressed, several times, by Vitter as to who the actual authour of the “radical” budget was, Bolden NEVER really answered the quiestion- ..

    lol

    the line of questioning by Vitter as to “who made” the policy was ridiculous. It was a process question which seems to occupy the political class, but means nothing in terms of the “average” American. The politics of it dont make any sense either. It is simply a means of attacking the plan without attacking Bolden…who did what you do in this situation.

    Nelson even had to correct Vitter…Nelson as well as Vitter knows what the score is…there is no more money for “The program of record” and the Program of record needs chunks of more money to carry on….more then is currently in the bill.

    Bolden is playing a winning hand…and in the process he can let people like Vitter look as stupid as they look.

    There are a couple of realities.

    1. Constellation is under performing and needs a LOT more money to get on some sustainable track. There is no more money.

    2. There is no real consensus or even desire past the flag waving space junkies for any space goal…none.

    3. Bolden is going, this year to kill off any options. And there is nothing that The Congress can do to stop him.

    bolden can figure this out. you and Whittington and Homer and all the other drum beaters cannot seem to. Watch listen and learn.

    Robert G. Oler

  • googaw

    It would be irony, especially for those people dancing a jig about the new policy, if it morphs into a “Mars by 2035!” program.,,

    Mars is a great goal for technology research because how to do it in a reasonable way is something we have great ignorance of, as Bolden has admitted. To do it in even any halfway-affordable, halfway-effective and halfway-safe manner (and oh how we do care about the safety of our astronauts!) we will need many technology breakthroughs. Of course, any such date would be purely ritualistic: a sop of false certainty for the people who need false certainty. But give the faithful what they want, a religious calendar and an itinerary of heavenly pilgrimage, as long as it does not overly interfere with real technology research.

  • googaw

    Sleeping on it, Bolden figured out how to answer the sniping questions about the authorship of the budget: “it is my budget.”

  • googaw

    Rep. Rohrbacher comes out strong for the new direction:

    Bolden will making sure reporters aren’t briefed first next time
    * NASA can’t do everything
    * Can’t ignore being billions over budget and behind schedule
    * Congratulations to Bolden for making tough decisions
    * Maintaining the workforce just to maintain the workforce is no good: the Constellation workforce is not on time, not on schedule, not meeting its responibility: it is holding America back
    * We have the Atlas, we have the Delta, very efficient and effective

    Very well said, Rep. Rohrbacher!

  • Major Tom

    “Incorrect. The draft legislation actually contemplates the acceleration of Constellation vehicles”

    The bill doesn’t endorse or fund Ares I/Orion acceleration. It endorses and funds “For a commercial crew programme… within six months… a milestone and demonstration driven competitive selection process [to] be undertaken with at least two commercial entities… to be operational ‘no later than fiscal year 2016′”. Again, the bill moves commercial crew forward (along with the Administration’s other priorities like ISS extension and HLV acceleration) while Ares I/Orion is reduced to a couple studies.

    Moreover, the Ares I/Orion studies are directed to examine whether Ares I/Orion “use [would] undermine a commercial transportation approach”. Even at the study level, the bill’s authors do not want Ares I/Orion to threaten commercial crew.

    And the bill’s authors also contemplate “the expansion of NASA’s commercial crew and cargo programmes to include beyond low Earth orbit capability”.

    “Please do not spread disinformation.”

    I’m not the one portraying a bill that directs NASA to move forward on commercial crew while putting Ares I/Orion into study mode as good for Ares I/Orion.

    It’s not.

    FWIW…

  • Major Tom

    “When pressed, several times, by Vitter as to who the actual authour of the “radical” budget was, Bolden NEVER really answered the quiestion”

    Because there is no single “author” for any department or agency’s budget. Any Administration’s annual budget is negotiated between the department/agency in question and the White House (mostly OMB).

    “I love how the truth of Lori Garver is starting to come to the surface! She was the main player in the entire NASA budget proposal for FY11!”

    If Garver is all-powerful, then why was OMB able to negotiate NASA down from the $3 billion budget boost set by the Augustine report?

    Enough with the goofy conspiracy theories…

  • Major Tom

    Forgot a point…

    “I love how the truth of Lori Garver is starting to come to the surface! She was the main player in the entire NASA budget proposal for FY11!”

    If Garver is all-powerful, then why was OMB able to negotiate NASA down from the $3 billion budget boost set by the Augustine report?

    And why was Bolden, and not Garver, meeting with the President in late January on the budget?

    Enough with the goofy conspiracy theories…

  • “I’m not the one portraying a bill that directs NASA to move forward on commercial crew while putting Ares I/Orion into study mode as good for Ares I/Orion.”

    Actually, given that they were in grave-digging mode before, study mode is an improvement. And it’s an improvement I support. While I often pan Orion as being made by a company, LockMart, that has never flown humans in space, it’s not a bad spacecraft. In fact, if anything, Ares I’s repeated safety and performance downgrades were forcing Orion to be half the spacecraft it used to be. Orbital is planning to keep the escape tower alive with or without constellation and Bigelow wants Orion to move forward so it can get some free R&D and a few engineering models for Orion Lite. If we walk away from this with an Orion on the path to launching by other means with Ares a distant memory I’ll be thrilled.

    I agree with your overall evaluation, however, in that when Ares/Orion is viewed in the light of pretty much any and every other project on NASA’s past and current lists, it will likely prove too expensive as a whole project. Constellation has slowly but surely sucked all of the air out of the space room, removing almost all tech development programs aside from reinventing the SRB wheel and a better J-2. Robotic precursors were canned, studies of the deep space environment were canned, Ares V was put on the back burner and Altair was taken entirely off the menu. Even the Ares I test schedule was truncated significantly. Constellation was a cancer to NASA and itself as it was conceived.

    And I’m truly amazed that anyone on these committees really believes that they’ll get the $3 billion/yr increase necessary to soldier on when it hits congress as a whole. I’m also surprised that they actually believe that given the $3 billion increase, all of constellation’s problems will be solved. How many times have senators in the past few years suggested more modest increases of $1 billion or less, even dubbing the effort a ‘miracle’, only to see it scrapped? Even Obama’s $1.6 b increase is a fairy tale, though I suspect the Wonk in Chief is well aware of that and aimed high.

  • “I love how the truth of Lori Garver is starting to come to the surface! She was the main player in the entire NASA budget proposal for FY11!”

    I’ll point out once more that Lori Garver stands to personally take a big hit with the cancellation of constellation as her hubby is employed by LockMart’s space division. If this was drafted by her, she’s clearly not acting out of some secretive personal interests unless hubby has done something of late that deserves unemployment as a punishment, family well-being be damned.

  • Robert G. Oler

    aremisasling wrote @ February 25th, 2010 at 11:55 am

    when a program in the federal government is headed for the “grave” the last act of canning it is to find a study to write the epitaph on its tombstone.

    Orion is somewhat entertaining because everything I have read and been told privately about it…is that the baseline vehicle is good if one could only find a use for it.

    Ares is not only over budget but under performing…

    they can have all the studies they want, but there is no one and nothing that is going to latch on to Ares for anything…commercial.

    Orion…Lockmart probabaly can make some use of it…

    but there is no doubt in my mind Constellation as the program of record is on its way out

    Robert G. Oler

  • “but there is no doubt in my mind Constellation as the program of record is on its way out”

    Agreed, 100%. I’m just holding onto hope that when the tombstone is written that Orion can still be passed on to the next of kin, but I guess more as a redundancy argument than anything. Best case scenario we get all half dozen or so spacecraft flying and find or build a market to keep them all afloat (in marketing they call it ‘manufacturing a need’ (see analog TV converters)). In that case we have redundant access to LEO and a Lunar capability when HLV comes online.

    Worst case scenario, every other system fails, the HLV never materializes and the largely built and mostly capable Orion is our plan g for LEO on a man-rated ULV stick. Heck, if LockMart’s talk of Orion is accurate and switching boosters isn’t incredibly problematic, Orion may be launching at or around the same date as Dragon.

  • Loki

    “Ares I’s repeated safety and performance downgrades were forcing Orion to be half the spacecraft it used to be.”

    Very true. Ares 1 was really holding back Orion’s potential. In many ways NASA made a huge mistake by tieing Orion/ Ares at the hip under the overarching “constellation” program. A better tactic, at least as far Orion is concerned, would have been to manage them as seperate programs and require Orion to be designed in such a way as to be compatible with existing LVs (EELV heavies), and later with future LVs (Ares 1, Falcon 9 heavy). That way when Ares 1 started having problems it could have been scrapped a couple of years ago or more.

    Designing the spacecraft and the new LV in parallel was a bad idea from day 1. Imagine how expensive the GPS sats would have been if the DoD had decided that they were “too important/ valuable” to be launched on existing vehicles. Suffice it to say, if Orion wants to survive we’ll have to stop with the make nice talk wrt Ares 1 and throw them under the bus eventually.

    “If we walk away from this with an Orion on the path to launching by other means with Ares a distant memory I’ll be thrilled.”

    Ditto, sort of. The good news for me personally would be I’d keep my job. The bad news for me personally is I’d keep my job. As much as unemployment would suck, so does my job to be 100% honest. The only advantage is it pays a lot more.

    The constellation program as we know it probably will be dead soon. The only purpose for the study is to see if there’s anything worth salvaging. In other words, the carrion birds will soon be picking the corpse clean.

  • Returning Student

    It was apparent that Sen Nelson is thinking to continue Ares test flights (perhaps under the guise of R&D). This approach would have the advantage of (somewhat) holding a skilled workforce in-place, while continuing a government option (just in case the commercial guys can’t pull off a successful launch in the near term). My question is where is he going to get the money to do this – from the already budgeted R&D funds, or some other source (in another forum I think he has mentioned some unused economic stimulus money) ?? If Sen Nelson can get multi-year funding to continue Ares development, while still executing some form of Obama’s budget, then I would be impressed…

  • Robert G. Oler

    aremisasling wrote @ February 25th, 2010 at 12:37 pm

    I would make two points (sorry this is long) but to start off we are in general agreement.

    First. Nothing in life is equal, but opportunity should be. Lockmart has put a lot of its time in Orion and has some institutional knowledge there and from what I have read and been told the project has a lot of “good” things to it. They should be allowed to continue that effort in any sort of resupply/recrew bid and SEE if they can make that system work in a cost competitive environment.

    I agree “things” Might move to a reality of a commercial dragon v a commercial orion in either of their guiese (resupply/crew) and that might make an interesting competition (I dont think it works out this way but it might).

    The trick is to launch as many ships as possible and see the fly off (sorry for mixing metaphors)…the Navy is trying this with its LCS …

    but and this is my main point…

    second. If I were advising the Bolden/Garver PR effort…and I am not…what this needs to be is a battle of “the future” vrs the “past”. It is going to have to be done delicatly because there are some geniune massages needed to try and preserve some infrastructure which might be useful, but the fact remains that all the “babble” about “a destination” is just that “babble”.

    Even “Call Girl” Vitter acknowledged that “the destination” business is all about a sort of “JFK” fetish. It is about trying to summon some sort of public support for a very “lavish” effort on the part of government to do things which in reality have no benefit for the rest of the nation. Spudis is good at saying he wants the moon for more then just a few NASA astronauts…but he cannot demonstrate how any “goal type” program delivers that.

    Every project since Apollo has started off with “the commercial goals” but in the end as the thing bogs down in NASA bureacracy what the end of it becomes is an expensive pyramid…a lot of people on the ground work to keep a few people in orbit doing not much. We spent 100 billion or so on a space station Ronaldus the great sold as costing 8 billion (and that station was far more capable) that was going to do enormous commercial things…and what do we have now…? A bunch of people on orbit doing little more then trying to solve the fire alarms.

    The shuttle was going to “open space” and its a billion dollar a pop ride for a bunch of civil servants who look puffy on TV.

    The reality of life is that we are never going back to the Moon or on to Mars unless we at some point develop a space industry that makes such a venture “plausible” for some affordable cost…and the folks like Whittington and yes Spudis are arguing for a “program” that always devolves to a single purpose effort.

    Bolden is winning this so he probably doesnt have to go that direction…but had I been Charlie (and thats why he is there and I am not) my line to Vitter would have been “Senator President Ronald Reagan proposed the space station with a goal of 1992…how did that work out?” (well I would have come up with nicer language).

    Winning has its own virtue…but at some point the choice boils down to (paraphrasing Virginia Postell) the future and its enemies. The “goal” people are its enemies.

    Robert G. Oler

  • common sense

    “Ares I and Orion are reduced to internal 90-day studies to see if there’s any way they can fit under the new plan — Ares I maybe as a test vehicle and Orion maybe as an industry-proposed option — without undermining the commercial approach. ”

    When you terminate a program and you give personel several billions, with a B, to do so you need them to do something, just not sit on their hands. So they’ll make a few more poerpoints…

    Ares and Orion started as a 90 day study it only fits that they end as a 90 day study.

  • Vladislaw

    The point, I believe, that Bolden made was this, I will be paraphrasing:

    1 I am saying Mars in days, and I speak for the President.

    2 I dont care who sends up an astronaut to LEO and in 10 years no one will care.

    3 I can send a lot of single and double point demostrations up to the iss on the current commercial launch vehicles available without heavy lift.

    For me this implies inspace, nuclear propulsion and that President Obama is being consistant with recent moves on nuclear power. Offering the loan guarantees for a couple nuke plants and the increase of material for RTG’s. I would not be at all surprised when the power point presentations start flying around showing inspace vehicle development. Putting the pieces together, so to speak, and showing mars orbit in 40 days with a phoboes landing.

  • common sense

    ” I would not be at all surprised when the power point presentations start flying around showing inspace vehicle development.”

    I won’t be as confident as you are as there are intrnational treaties to whatever we can put in space. Now of course if we have international partners then… There will still be a lot of resistance from environmentalist groups (I am not saying whether it is good or not just saying). Anyway at least we’re talking future and not past…

  • googaw

    common sense:
    There will still be a lot of resistance from environmentalist groups [to space nuclear power]

    Since it’s being done by a Democratic President and Congress, it’s like Nixon going to China so it may work this time. (For the youngsters out there, Nixon was a famous anti-Communist so when he cozied up to the Chinese as a quasi-alliance against the Soviets, you knew it was for real). OTOH, Obama will probably be history before the actual launches that the greens fear will rain nuclear death on them.

  • Anyone have video links to the hearings for the past two days? I’ve checked YouTube (NASATelevision channel), Space-Multimedia (a NASA TV archiving site) and CSPAN. No results so far. I’d like to see both hearings in their entirety.

    That said, I did see some snippets, and I thought it was interesting that Bolden basically said that Flexible Path was chosen because of his recommendations to the President. Indicating, at least to me, that the people claiming that the President and the Science Advisor are the ones running to show, are wrong.

  • [...] That’s the claim of a Wall Street Journal today, which states that administrator Charles Bolden is seeking alternatives to the current plan rolled out just over a month ago because of the strong and largely negative reaction it’s received on Capitol Hill. What might this “Plan B” contain? A memo cited the article mentions development of a crewed spacecraft and a heavy-lift launch vehicle, as well as a launch vehicle test program: all items that have come up in Congressional hearings, particularly Sen. Bill Nelson’s Senate committee hearing last week, where he spoke about the need for continued development of a “Rocket X”. [...]

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