NASA administrator Charles Bolden’s two-and-a-half-hour appearance before the Commerce, Justice, and Science subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee covered some expected ground, including some heated discussions about the agency’s planetary science program as well as questions about its commercial crew program. But a hearing that long also allowed members to delve into other topics, from cybersecurity to China to an issue that’s still a sore point for some members: the disposition of the retired shuttle orbiters.
The big issue, though, was planetary science, and in particular the future of the agency’s Mars exploration program after NASA withdrew from the joint ExoMars program with Europe. “I understand that the budget pressures require you to make cuts to your science programs, but I don’t understand why those cuts are overwhelmingly in planetary science,” subcommittee chairman Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) said to Bolden immediately after the administrator finished his opening statement. “The area that seemed to be actually in the best shape was our Mars exploration, contrary to popular belief,” Bolden responded, citing the missions currently at Mars, as well as Mars Science Lab (en route to Mars) and the MAVEN orbiter, slated for launch in 2013.
He said the “smaller, focused” missions expected to emerge from the agency’s restructuring of its Mars exploration program would still be able to support an eventual Mars sample return mission, a top goal of planetary scientists. “We never had a Mars sample return mission within our budgets,” he claimed. “People think that, by stepping away from ExoMars, we are stepping away from Mars sample return. There was no Mars sample return in the two missions being planned for ExoMars.” In fact, the 2018 ExoMars mission was designed to cache samples as the first step of a multi-mission sample return effort, with future missions to take the sample and return it to Earth—something Bolden did acknowledge.
Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), who has been the most outspoken congressional critic of the proposed planetary science budget cuts, got into an impassioned debate with Bolden later in the hearing about Mars. The cut in the Mars program, he said, “is a major step backwards for NASA and the nation” because, with human space exploration and the launch of JWST still years off, “the Mars program is the key driver of public support for the space program.”
Schiff pressed Bolden on who made the decision to terminate NASA’s participation in ExoMars, trying to determine if the decision came from within NASA or from the White House. “Congressman, the decision came from me,” Bolden said, refusing to put any of the blame on the White House or the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in particular. “I asked, how are we going to do a Mars sample return based on the budget we have currently,” he said. He later admitted that he was initially under the impression that ExoMars was was a sample return mission, and thus had doubts when he found it was only the first step in a multi-mission strategy. “It was a successive understanding of our posture fiscally, and a successive understanding on my part of our technical capability, that told me that I could not, and as I told [ESA Director-General] Jean-Jacques Dordain, that I can not in good conscience allow them to continue to think that the United States is going to be there for them on a sample return mission in 2028 that we cannot support, we cannot afford.”
That explanation did not mollify Schiff. “Mr. Administrator, I can’t in good conscience support a budget that says that America’s days of leadership in space science are limited,” he said. Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) was similarly critical of the planetary budget. “The budget that the president has put forward is clearly putting the best days of planetary exploration behind us,” he said. “It’s visionless. It’s just really—I just grieve for my country, I grieve for NASA.”
Later in the hearing, Wolf addressed commercial crew, in particular questioning, as other have in the past, whether it would be more expedient, and less expensive, for NASA to downselect to a smaller number of companies now. “The administration believes that maximizing competition is a cost control measure, however, it also ensures that we will spend hundreds of millions of dollars on companies who will never take crew to the International Space Station” because of technical issues or a lack of demand for crew transportation services, Wolf said, asking if it made sense to downselect to two companies.
Bolden said, as he has previously, that it made little sense to downselect to one or two companies at this stage of development. “So there’s no effort of making this basically a wartime proposal, bringing together the best minds in the four companies or the three companies or the two companies now, knowing that everyone would get something and be a participant,” Wolf said. Bolden said companies have been encouraged to collaborate, but “I can’t mandate that the companies come together.”
Wolf pondered the priority of commercial crew versus other programs, like Mars exploration. Referring to comments by Schiff and Culberson, “I tend to feel their concern, because I want America to be number one. So if we are even reasonably concerned that the commercial crew program may not deliver in time to serve the International Space Station, then I guess the question somebody would have to ask—and I’m not saying that I’m opposed to it—but why should taxpayers spend an additional four billion dollars subsidizing companies to develop these systems when other programs that are meritorious have to be cut. Is it time to revisit some of the assumptions about the commercial crew program?”
While members spent a lot of time discussing Mars, commercial crew, and related issues, one member was interested in a past topic: NASA’s decision nearly a year ago to award shuttle orbiters to sites in California, Florida, New York, and Virginia. Rep. Steve Austria (R-OH) spent about ten minutes questioning Bolden on the shuttle site selection process, concerned that the National Museum of the US Air Force in Dayton—in his current district—had been slighted. Citing a scoring error in the rating process found after the fact in a NASA Inspector General report, Austria said it “raises concerns on my part as to the integrity and how accurate this process was.” Bolden defended the choice, noting there were “significant shortcomings on the proposal” from the Air Force museum, “not the least of which was funding.” He also said that NASA was providing quarterly reports on the disposition of the orbiters to Congress, as required in the FY12 appropriations bill, and that NASA may soon be relieved of the responsibility of providing additional such reports.