In a speech Thursday, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee’s space subcommittee, said he would work to get NASA’s commercial crew program funded at the level requested in the administration’s fiscal year 2013 budget proposal this week, while insisting that the president himself is a “fan” of the space agency.
Nelson, speaking at the FAA’s 15th Annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington on Thursday morning, gave a long and sometimes meandering account of the current state of space policy, shifting from concerns about budget sequestration to a first-person account of his lobbying efforts to secure the passage of the Senate’s version of the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 in the House in September 2010. “And thus, the blueprint was set for three years going forward” for NASA, he said.
That legislation authorized $500 million in FY2012 for NASA’s commercial crew program, and while the administration originally requested even more—$850 million—the program got less than half that request, $406 million, in the final FY12 bill. This year is setting up to be a repeat: the legislation authorizes $500 million for the program, while the administration is requesting nearly $830 million. Nelson suggested, though, that this year would end differently. “We will get it on up in the appropriations coming up this year,” he said, “but there’s always a struggle.”
Part of the problem securing commercial crew funding, he claimed, was that “people were uncomfortable with a new player on the block,” a reference to SpaceX. He noted that some Apollo-era astronauts have been “very suspicious” of SpaceX’s claims, but, “once you inserted in there the name of another competitor, which was a name they were familiar with—Boeing—the tension in their faces would relax.”
The upcoming COTS demonstration flights by SpaceX and Orbital for cargo delivery to the ISS may be critical to winning support for commercial crew, Nelson said. “We need SpaceX and Orbital to succeed, and we need to prove that the emerging commercial space industry can fly to the ISS safely, and meet all of NASA’s standards,” he said. SpaceX’s COTS mission, recently delayed to April, will take place “right at the right time, because that’s about the time decisions are starting to be made in regards to the appropriations.”
Nelson also touched upon his perceptions of the White House’s view of space in his talk. He called his efforts to convince the Obama Administration to nominate Charles Bolden for NASA administrator in 2009 “one of the best day’s work that I think I ever did”, but later said he “had to strain and grunt in my work down at the White House” to secure that nomination.
Later in the speech he complained that there had to be “a lot of education down there at the White House” on space, but that the problem was not with the President. “The President is a fan,” Nelson said. “The President, in internal meetings where they’re trying to take money away from NASA, has said no, and I know this for a fact,” he claimed. The problem with the administration is instead with the Office of Management and Budget, he argued. “For too long, OMB has thought it was running the space program instead of NASA. We’ve had to have a few head-knocking sessions to start to smooth that out. And I’m happy to tell you today that it is finally getting smoothed out.”