If NASA and the White House thought that President Obama’s speech last month outlining his vision for the future of the agency’s space exploration plans would be enough to satisfy members of Congress, they get a strong reality check Thursday in a hearing by the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee (video). At the hearing on NASA’s budget proposal (postponed from last month because of healthcare-related votes in the Senate), NASA administrator Charles Bolden got reactions varying from uncertainty to hostility from senators.
Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), chair of the subcommittee and the only Democratic senator present at the hearing, said she was not yet sold on the new exploration plan. “I need to know more,” she said. “Congress needs to know more. We owe it to the American people, we owe it to the taxpayers, and we owe it to the astronauts to be very clear about what we’re going to do and how are we are going to it. I need to know more details.”
The ranking member of the subcommittee, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), expressed no uncertainties, and ratcheted up his rhetoric, particularly regarding the emphasis on commercial crew transportation in the new plan, in his opening statement. “Mr. Administrator, your plan does nothing more than continue the abdication of America’s leadership in space,” Shelby said. Later: “This request represents nothing more than a commercially-led, faith-based space program.”
Appearing to borrow some of the language from recent Senate debates on financial reform (Shelby is the ranking member of the Banking Committee), he called the extra $312 million for COTS included in the FY11 budget request “an additional bailout” for “failed commercial providers”. The plan to rely on commercial providers for crew transportation will also founder, he predicted. “The truth is, when troubles mount and a commercial rocket market again fails to materialize, the taxpayers will be called on to bailout these companies and their investors, a recurring theme within this Administration.”
Shelby also criticized NASA for “attempting to undermine the letter and the spirit of the law”, claiming the agency was already making plans to shut down Constellation contracts despite a prohibition from doing so in the appropriations bill for FY10. “Your destructive actions toward the Constellation program will only ensure that members cannot trust you,” he said. “You, Mr. Administrator, are creating an atmosphere where you and your leadership team have become a major impediment to moving forward.”
Bolden also got an earful from Sen. Bob Bennett (R-UT), who participated in the hearing although he’s not a member of the CJS subcommittee. Bennett took particular exception to a comment Bolden made in response to a question from Sen. Mikulski regarding safety that the “demonstrated reliability” of Ares 1, like Falcon 9 and Taurus 2, is zero, as none of those vehicles have flown yet. “You made a statement just now that I find incredible, when you say that the demonstrated reliability of Ares is zero,” Bennett said. He then held up a copy of the Time magazine issue last year that proclaimed the Ares 1 their invention of the year, reading a passage from the article that claimed that last year’s test flight “dazzled even the skeptics.” “That doesn’t sound like there’s no demonstration of reliability,” Bennett continued. “None of the other things that you talked about can match the tested perfection of Ares.”
Bolden responded that “perhaps we were not very good in explaining to people that Ares 1-X is not Ares,” then went on to explain the differences between the Ares 1-X that flew last October and the full Ares 1 that has yet to fly. Bennett appeared ready to step in and challenge, or otherwise respond to, Bolden’s comments when Sen. Mikulski interrupted. “In the interest of time we’re not going to have a debate.”
There wasn’t a debate, but by the end of the hearing neither Sen. Mikulski’s uncertainties were resolved nor the strong opposition by Shelby and Bennett were assuaged, although the discussion will continue. “Madame Chairwoman, I hope you would reserve the right to hold another hearing on this matter,” Shelby said at the end of the hearing. “I absolutely agree that we will hold another hearing,” Mikulski responded.