Congress, NASA

At a hearing about NASA’s future, discussion of its present and past

Monday afternoon’s hearing by the Commerce, Justice, and Science Subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee was unusual in two respects. One was the timing of it: 4 pm on a Monday, with the Senate not yet officially back in session from the weekend. The second was that the hearing, while ostensibly about the agency’s FY2012 budget proposal, focused far more on its current situation and even its past.

That focus is understandable to some degree, as NASA doesn’t quite yet have an FY11 budget, more than six months after the fiscal year began. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), chairperson of the subcommittee, had little to offer in the way of details about the budget deal reached Friday night other than that the full appropriations bill will be released at midnight tonight. She asked NASA administrator Charles Bolden, the only witness at the hearing, to “scrub” the CR when it comes out and look for issues that could cause complications for 2012, and share that information with key members of the subcommittee and the full committee.

In her prepared remarks, though, she indicated that whatever NASA got in 2011 would likely be below the $18.7 billion it received in FY2010. “Nineteen billion dollars was authorized and $19 billion is what I put in my Appropriations bill. But my bill died, so NASA won’t get $19 billion. NASA won’t even get the $18.7 billion it got in 2010,” the statement reads. “Simply put, NASA will be cut more. The cuts are regrettable, and they will just build on one another.” Later in the hearing, she added, “In effect, you’re going to be below 2010.” She hinted, though, that there would be “some flexibility” in the CR.

A sizable part the hearing was also devoted to the question of what NASA will do with the shuttle orbiters when they are retired. NASA will announce which sites will get which orbiters Tuesday at 1 pm EDT at a 30th anniversary event at the Kennedy Space Center. Bolden said he would announce where all four orbiters, including Enterprise (currently at the National Air and Space Museum’s Udvar-Hazy Center) will be located; NASA would transfer Enterprise to another center if it awards Discovery (as widely expected) or another orbiter to the Smithsonian. (Interestingly, the NASA authorization act that the Smithsonian “shall determine any new location for the Enterprise”, not NASA.)

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), the subcommittee’s ranking member, and Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH) pressed Bolden for details about how the orbiters would be assigned; both represent states seeking orbiters. Bolden said that the final decision rested with him, and indicated that he actually hadn’t made it yet. “I am going to make the decision probably when I get back over to my office this afternoon,” he said. He also said that he had been briefing people “close to the president” about the shuttle plans, but denied there was any kind of political influence on the decision. “This process has been as pure as I could make it, and free of any political involvement,” he said. “I can that until I’m blue in the face but there will always be someone who will have the opinion that that was not the case.”

Later, when asked by Hutchison about whether NASA followed language in the NASA authorization act that gives preference to orbiters “with an historical relationship with either the launch, flight operations, or processing of the Space Shuttle orbiters or the retrieval of NASA manned space vehicles, or significant contributions to human space flight,” Bolden indicated that was the case. “I think you will find, when the announcement is made, that every place receiving an orbiter has an historical connection to human spaceflight and, in fact, I think you will find that every one of them has an historical connection to the space shuttle.”

There was some attention to current and future issues facing the agency beyond distributing shuttle orbiters and lining up appropriations for the current fiscal year. Mikulski asked a series of questions about the status of the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), concerned that the program’s cost overruns and the lack of significant new funding for the program could make it “targets for big cuts” in future appropriations. Bolden assured–or at least tried to assure–her that the agency was taking steps to put the program on track, and would wait until an assessment is complete before asking for additional funds for the program. He did state that JWST has a “reasonable launch date of 2018″, which is significantly later than just last November, when an independent report found JWST would slip to no earlier than late 2015.

Hutchison, meanwhile, grilled Bolden on why he had not transitioned existing Orion contracts to the new Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) included in the authorization bill. Those delays, coupled with the request for only $1 billion for the MPCV in the 2012 proposal (compared to $1.4 billion in the authorization act), lead her to conclude in her opening statement, “This budget deliberately hamstrings the ability for Orion to reach an operability date of 2016.” Bolden noted that he is hamstrung as well by the so-called “Shelby provision” that prevents him from canceling Constellation contracts, although he said, as he has in the past, that NASA is focusing Constellation work as much as possible on elements relevant to the MPCV and the Space Launch System. Hutchison also expressed some skepticism about the viability of commercial crew and cargo providers, noting COTS awardees are “significantly behind schedule”, and added that “the same scrutiny that has been placed upon our other manned vehicles should be applied to commercial crew” as well to ensure safety.

One other person attending the hearing was Sen. Thad Cochran (R-MS), the vice-chairman (aka ranking member) of the full appropriations committee. He asked questions focused primarily on the use of the Stennis Space Center in his home state for rocket engine testing, but also expressed support for immediate development of a super-heavy-lift vehicle. “I hopeful we can stay on track and meet the goal of developing our heavy-lift capacity for operation by 2016,” he said. “And I’m hopeful that it’s a 130-ton capacity.” Bolden said later that while a 130-metric-ton vehicle is the “ultimate goal”, it would not be the first heavy-lift vehicle the agency would build under the plan. “It will be an evolving program to get there, though.”

13 comments to At a hearing about NASA’s future, discussion of its present and past

  • James T

    How behind schedule are the COTS awardees? I’ve only been following for the past year so I guess there was an expectation made before then that’s not being met?

    But anyways, since I started paying attention we’ve seen the first commercial owned spacecraft return from orbit, with suggestions that the second and third demos of that vehicle would be combined into one. So from my point of view they (SpaceX, in anyone needed that spelled out) are ahead of at least a more recently proposed schedule. On top of that, they’ve announced a launch vehicle that could potentially launch 53 tons to orbit. Was that payload capacity even requested by the COTS program at this time? If not, that’s certainly ahead of schedule.


    “A sizable part the hearing was also devoted to the question of what NASA will do with the shuttle orbiters when they are retired… Bolden said that the final decision rested with him, and indicated that he actually hadn’t made it yet.” <- Which speaks volumes given Gagarin was orbited 50 years ago tomorrow and by coincidence, Apollo 13 was launched 41 years ago today— another televised NASA-snafu in the making as well.

  • reader

    “I hopeful we can stay on track..”

    What track would that be ?

  • I thank you very much for this. The Air Force and DoD contractors bailed out of the Shuttle after Challenger and over the years a number of great customers who would launch satellites, commercial or military have found great solace and success in the developing Atlas, Delta, Dragon and others in the EELV program – although Space X has yet to do much of anything so far as contract work providing revenue to the effort. Yet like Japan’s H-2B rocket which was incredibly successful in landing a payload so close to the ISS twice that the Station’s Arm need only reach out and touch some… thing, Space X seems very capable already of doing what Japan has already done without incident on the first two tries. After Columbia was lost in 2003, one of the better NASA Administrators, Sean O’Keefe along with the White House OMB and Congress’s CBO worked with all of the local pork interests in the various Districts to provide NASA funding for something called ORION/ARES which was great on paper but unfortunately attempted to fit a square peg into a round hole. In my opinion the fatal plan was proved too expensive and useless for the rocket ARES IX when at least four fatally flawed problems showed up on Launch Pad 39-A and the test, never intended to go even as far as the SRB Boosters do, was a total non-starter, especially given the money invested in the project. And here along comes Space X – to be fair assisted all along the way by technical guidance and expertise from NASA, to do more on the pioneer audition from Cape Canaveral on a fraction of the cost – including several orbits, a capsule deobrit and a successful pinpoint landing than NASA did with exponentially greater costs involved in lobbing a dummy payload just a few hundred miles off the coast. With pinpoint precision, Space X hit the WEST Coast of California, not the East coast off the “launch range.” (TBC)

  • (Continued) …. and so one major concern I share is that of Republican Kay Bailey Hutchinson – who proves that there is an -R- (party) in the word poRk by her continued support for things that don’t make much sense for a space program, but after all it’s not about space anymore, NASA has long ago degenerated into a jobs program. She asks who I think is the greatest NASA Administrator in History why isn’t Orion being used to fit, in layman’s terms, on an Atlas 501 or Delta IV heavy being that Orion is cancelled. The answer cites another poRk of those in the ( -R- ) party, Mike Shelby, Senator from Alabama who oink oink (and with him you can believe it) doesn’t allow for anything to circumvent home-State Pork. As a fellow Republican, I find that the worst offenders of “doing the right thing” happen to be those speaking of NASA’s Space program when it was never about space, it was about pork. I notice that
    Thad Cochran, another porkster with proof that there is an -R- in PORK only seemed concerned about his own Stennis center.

    Let me submit to you, based on the number of WX delays as called by internal Shuttle Weather Flight Officer Kathy Winters resulting in scrubs over the years, that Florida’s weather is too unstable to be a suitable space launch facility. No pork here, just go find someplace else to launch rockets that is more suitable. You see, I can be fair. Yes I can. Because for me, it’s a SPACE program, not a Jobs Program. And when you do launch that next rocket from a better place, let it be aboard Atlas, Delta or Dragon. I don’t care.

  • Falcon based Heavy-lifter is best bet. Also Dragon is right on schedule Nuf said….!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!.

  • And where would SpaceX be if it didn’t have to wait for NASA/Air Force approvals?

    For example, SpaceX had to wait several months last year while the USAF dictated the self-destruct system for the Falcon 9 test.

  • amightywind

    there is an -R- (party) in the word poRk

    Remember, you can’t spell democrat without RAT. KBH has ever been a friend of NASA, especially these last 2 years in which she has helped fight off Obama’s newspace pirates.

    For example, SpaceX had to wait several months last year while the USAF dictated the self-destruct system for the Falcon 9 test.

    Those pesky safety requirements! Maybe it is better to rain flaming rocket debris on Charleston?

  • common sense

    @ amightywind wrote @ April 12th, 2011 at 8:19 am

    Ah… Still not there where you belong amightywind.

    “Those pesky safety requirements! Maybe it is better to rain flaming rocket debris on Charleston?”

    Ever read this report about Ares?

    Funny because the USAF talks about Ares not F-9: Ares has the flaming debris flying around possibly killing the astronauts. Not such thing about F-9… Anyway.

    Ah also, you know repugnant starts with repu… Just to be fair to the rats.


    Watched the hearing. Bolden is useless. About the only thing he sounded the least bit authorative on was his repeated assertions that the disposition of the orbiters were HIS decision to make. So LA gets Atlantis; NYC gets Enterprise; Smithsonian gets Discovery and KSC gets Endeavour.

    Yep, tough decisions by this guy.

    The hearing brought tears to the eyes. America’s space program is dead.


    amightywind wrote @ April 12th, 2011 at 8:19 am
    there is an -R- (party) in the word poRk

    “Remember, you can’t spell democrat without RAT.”
    C’mon, Windy– And you can’t spell conservative with out ‘CON.’ Right wing lying and prattle is not helping much. The objective is to try to save the nation’s space program, not snipe at each other. The budget cutting deal made last Friday acually gave the DoD a $5 billion INCREASE. This is why NASA belongs tucked under the wing of the DoD.


    @DCSCA wrote @ April 12th, 2011 at 6:21 pm
    LA gets Endeavour and KSC gets Atlantis. My error.

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