Presidential science advisor John Holdren faced some questions about NASA’s FY11 budget proposal at a hearing of the House Science and Technology Committee on Wednesday morning, but those questions were fairly limited because the committee will be holding a hearing with NASA administrator Charles Bolden on Thursday, and most members decided to hold off until then. Those who did ask Holdren about NASA tended to be critical of the budget proposal, with the exception of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who wanted to “commend” the administration for its commercial approach to human spaceflight. “Your administration has tried to take an honest approach to looking at what NASA is all about,” he said, adding he was critical of the billions that had been spent on Constellation with little progress to show for it.
Wednesday afternoon, while Bolden was meeting with senators, Holdren appeared before a the Commerce, Justice, and Science subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee on the FY1 R&D budget. While the chairman of the subcommittee, Rep. Alan Mollohan (D-WV), only mentioned NASA briefly in his opening statement, the subcommittee’s ranking member, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), was more pointed in his criticism of the NASA budget proposal. “Based on the little information that has been provided to the Congress, it appears that this plan was hastily developed without proper vetting from NASA’s scientific, engineering and human spaceflight experts,” he claimed in his opening statement, and went on to provide some comments from Apollo-era astronauts and former NASA administrator Mike Griffin, all opposed to the plan. He also cited a similarly critical letter from Burt Rutan, who is “fearful that the commercial guys will fail” in providing cargo and crew services to NASA.
“By killing the exploration program in favor of a vaguely defined ‘research and development’ program,” Wolf continued in his statement, “you are guaranteeing that the Chinese, Russians, and others will be closing the exploration gap.”
Another subcommittee member critical of the plan was Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), who released a statement as well as a transcript of his exchange with Holdren at the hearing. “I appreciate Dr. Holdren’s attendance at today’s hearing; however his testimony and answers simply did not calm my fears that our nation’s space program will not remain a leading science program,” Aderholt said in his statement. “I urge President Obama and the administration to scrap this plan to end Constellation and give NASA the appropriate funding to remain a world leader.”
In the transcript of his exchange with Holdren, Aderholt took an interesting tack: claiming that Constellation would be less expensive to operate than a commercial alternative:
Fixed costs for launching Ares I would be about $1.2 billion a year; any launch system is going to have that high a cost or higher. The marginal cost, or cost per rocket, would be about $120 million for Ares I, plus about $50 million for the Orion capsule. The latest estimate for a completed Falcon 9 is about $130 million. Meanwhile, we should note that the original March 2006 contracts NASA signed with the two companies which won COTS contracts called for 3 demonstration flights by the fall of 2008, showing the ability to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. Almost four years later, we are still waiting on that first flight.
Aderholt also asked Holdren about what market studies had been done “which proves that multiple rocket companies can survive without continued taxpayer support”. Holdren didn’t give a specific answer other than the companies in the launch industry themselves had done such studies. “I’m sure there have been market studies, I mean, these folks aren’t crazy.”