This morning’s hearing of the Senate Commerce Committee on “Priorities, Plans, and Progress of the Nation’s Space Program” was slow to get started: it took over half an hour before the hearing’s primary witness, NASA administrator Charles Bolden, got to start his opening statement. However, it quickly ratcheted up in intensity as Bolden and committee ranking member Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) got into an extended debate—bordering on a heated argument—about spending on commercial crew versus the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV).
Hutchison first raised her concerns about proposed spending levels for those programs in her opening statement. “Reviewing that budget… gives me great concern,” she said, citing a reduction in the administration’s FY13 budget proposal of $326 million for SLS and Orion and what she argued was a “corresponding increase of $330 million for commercial crew”. (That amount of increase is apparently with respect to the authorized level of $500 million; commercial crew got $406 million in FY12 and the agency is requesting nearly $830 million in FY13.) “I was frankly floored, as you know from our conversation,” she told Bolden after he completed his opening statement, “that it would be so blatant to take it right out of Orion and SLS and put it into commercial crew, rather than trying to accomplish the joint goals that we have of putting forward both.”
Bolden responded that he had to cut funding from programs across the agency. “We had to make very difficult choices because we were $2 billion below where we thought we would be for a fiscal year ’13 budget” based on authorized levels, he said. The budget, he said, would keep SLS and Orion on track for an initial, uncrewed test flight in 2017 and a crewed mission by 2021, a date which he said was conservative based on the current budget runouts. Accelerating the 2017 date, he said, was not possible even if the program got additional funding.
Hutchison was not satisfied with that answer, though. “You said everybody had to be cut some to make the priorities, but in fact, the commercial crew vehicle approach that you’re taking was not cut, it was plussed up from last year’s spending levels,” she argued. “You are over-prioritizing the commercial and not being as concerned about keeping the people at NASA who would be able to stay involved” for future exploration programs. Bolden countered that “our workforce is stable.”
Hutchison later introduced a proposal that she said would resolve her concerns about funding for SLS/Orion while keeping commercial crew on track. She suggested that NASA downselect now to a smaller number of companies to make better use of funding. “Some of them are not going to be able to function if they don’t have these subsidies once you make a decision about who is going to do the vehicle,” she claimed of the companies that currently have commercial crew awards from NASA. “Isn’t there an overspending at this point in the proliferating of companies that are getting the federal subsidies?” she asked. By reducing the number of companies to perhaps two, and going back to more typical contracts instead of Space Act Agreements (which, she added, would address concerns about companies meeting NASA safety standards), she argued the program would be more efficient and free up money that could support SLS and Orion: “a win on both sides.”
Bolden disagreed, saying that while he was reluctant to switch the acquisition strategy for the latest round of the commercial crew program, from a contract to an SAA, it was recommended to him based on the available funding. He also noted that “requirements and specifications” for safety are available so that companies involved in the program know what they will eventually be required to meet. “There is no problem of safety with Space Act Agreements,” he said. “I am responsible for safety, and as I have said from the day that I became the administrator, I will not jeopardize safety for crews.”
As the back-and-forth continued, both Bolden and Hutchison seemed to harden in their positions, and the language got sharper. Bolden said that the 2017 date for beginning commercial crew transportation services is supported by the budget proposal, but would be if that funding was reduced. “We are not taking money away from SLS/MPCV,” he said.
“But you are!” Hutchison interrupted. “It’s clear, it’s in the numbers, and it’s irrefutable. If you had the passion ands the concern for the SLS and the Orion that you have for protecting whatever number of commercial companies that you want to put out there…”
“Senator, not to get personal,” Bolden interrupted in turn, “but my passion for SLS/MPCV exceeds anybody’s in this room.”
“Well, it’s not shown in the numbers, Mr. Administrator. That’s the problem.”
“Senator, I fight for SLS/MPCV just as much as I do for every other of the three priorities we have agreed to.” [A reference to ISS cargo/crew and JWST.]
Hutchison later said she was simply trying to suggest to Bolden that if he was willing to “cut down the number, but not the amount of emphasis that you have, in the commercial sector, we could do both.”
“If we cut down the number of competitors,” Bolden said, “we will probably drive up the cost” through a change to standard contracts without the cost-sharing that currently exists under SAAs.
Sen. Bill Nelson, chairman of the committee’s space subcommittee, largely stayed on the sidelines during this extended back-and-forth between Bolden and Hutchison. Later, he said he supported increasing commercial crew funding, provided it didn’t come at the expense of SLS and Orion. “With a limited amount of money, we know we’re asking you do an awful lot,” he told Bolden. “What we need to do is work with you at coming up with a number for commercial and not, at the same time, sacrifice anything on the big rocket and Orion.”
It’s notable that this debate was the key issue in the hearing: the rest of the questions focused on issues like spaceport upgrades at the Kennedy Space Center and cybersecurity concerns at NASA. Other than brief mentions in their opening statements, there was no debate about the proposed cuts in planetary science funding, including NASA’s withdrawal from the ExoMars program, that have angered many in the scientific community.