In the first opportunity for members of Congress to publicly question the administration on details of its fiscal year 2013 budget request for NASA, members of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee expressed concern Friday about proposed cuts to NASA’s Mars program and its exploration program.
“NASA seems to have been singled out for unequal treatment,” committee chairman Ralph Hall (R-TX) said in his opening statement at a hearing on the overall FY13 research and development budget proposal for the federal government. He noted that other civil research and development agencies has received at least modest increases, while NASA got a small overall cut. Hall specifically called out the agency’s planetary science program and its “grossly disproportionate cut” of 20 percent.
Hall also complained that the administration was trying to “slow-roll development of a heavy-lift launch vehicle”, the SLS. “I cannot stress enough the importance of accelerating the launch system to ensure we have an alternative method to transport people and cargo to the ISS as well as the ability to launch missions beyond low Earth orbit.”
The committee’s ranking member, Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), also brought up the “significant changes and reductions” in the NASA budget proposal in her opening statement. “I have questions about how the proposed cuts to the Mars science program will affect US leadership,” she said. “I’m also worried about the perception this plan may create that the United States is an unreliable partner in international collaboration.”
The hearing’s sole witness, Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) director John Holdren, defended the administration’s Mars plans when asked about it by Hall. Despite the decision not to participate in ExoMars, he said, “we retain the most vigorous and forward-leaning Mars exploration program that there’s ever been, the most forward-leaning in the world.” He cited the ongoing missions, as well as the Mars Science Laboratory rover en route to Mars and the MAVEN orbiter slated for launch in 2013. “We are in no way retreating from our commitment to a vigorous program of Mars exploration, including laying the groundwork for human exploration.”
Later in the hearing, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) asked Holdren whether that commitment to Mars exploration meant “that you feel that there will be no more delays in the development of the SLS.” Holdren said he had a “cloudy crystal ball” when it comes to predicting the development of complex technical projects like the SLS, but “our expectation is to keep SLS on schedule.”
Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH) asked Holdren why NASA’s education budget was cut from $136 million in FY12 to $100 million in the FY13 request. “We constantly have a big challenge with NASA,” Holdren said, “namely, budget caps, and too many great and important missions inside that agency to fit within the budget.” Holdren suggested that NASA’s education program lost funding because it didn’t stack up as well against either other agency programs or STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education programs in other agencies. “The NASA program lost a bit in that domain. And that was partly the result of the comparative assessment across the STEM ed programs, and partly the result of the overall pressure in NASA to do everything, and to do everything well.”
Not everyone on the committee, though, expressed displeasure with the NASA budget proposal. “Given where we are in terms of the overall budget, I guess I’m one who thinks that you’ve done a reasonably good job in trying to put something together that will work, and I want to complement you for that,” Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) told Holdren. She said she had a “high degree of skepticism” that Europe would be able to live up to its own commitments for ExoMars given the fiscal turmoil in the EU. “The proposal being made by the administration is a prudent one, and I think the overall NASA budget is a pretty solid one,” she said.