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.