Wednesday afternoon’s hearing by the Commerce, Justice, and Science subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee revealed few new insights about NASA’s fiscal year 2013 budget proposal or Congress’s reaction to it. However, it did emphasize that commercial crew, and the amount of funding NASA is requesting for the program, is one of the most sensitive aspects of the overall budget.
“Mr Administrator, I believe that the core mission of NASA is to build cutting-edge systems that allow us to expand our knowledge of the universe,” said Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL). “This administration, I believe, seems to think that NASA’s job is to use taxpayer money as venture capital to support speculative commercial companies, the future Solyndras of the space industry.” He complained that NASA sought to cut funding for the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion while increasing funding for commercial crew. “When is this administration going to get the message that the Congress, I believe, is not willing to subsidize so-called commercial vendors at the expense of NASA’s core mission of engineering and exploration?”
Earlier in the hearing, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), the ranking member of the subcommittee, reiterated similar concerns she expressed at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing earlier in the month. “I do support commercial crew,” she said in her opening statement. “However, I think NASA is continuing to throw money at too many companies with a hope of flying astronauts.” She said NASA should commission a study like it did for SLS and Orion to find what she said would be the quickest solution, one that would involve only one or two companies going forward. “Members of Congress are already coalescing around NASA choosing no more than two companies, providing competition as well as funding realities that we see in our budget and not stealing from the long-term future, which is Orion and the launch vehicle.”
Bolden did not make any new arguments for or other statements about the status of the commercial crew program or the commercial cargo providers, whose upcoming test flights may weigh heavily on commercial crew’s future. “Commercial crew and cargo are vital for me to be able for me to live up to my promise to you on the International Space Station,” he said in response to questions about the program from Hutchison, who is an advocate for station utilization. He said he believed SpaceX was still likely to launch on April 30, weather permitting, for its cargo test flight, and Orbital would be ready to launch in the summer, depending on the status of its launch facilities at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on Wallops Island, Virginia—delays in the completion of those facilities clearly being a sore point for both him and subcommittee chairwoman Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD).
Hutchison appeared almost weary of the exchanges she’s had with Bolden about the program. “I’m going to ask you a question, you’re not going to answer it, and we’re going to be where we are and we’re going to settle this one-on-one,” she said with a sigh when it was her turn to question Bolden.
Beyond commercial crew, Mikulski quizzed Bolden about whether NASA was drawing up any plans should budget sequestration proceed as currently required by law, an event that would cut the agency’s budget by 8% across the board, she warned. Bolden, who previously indicated he wasn’t worried about sequestration, said he remained optimistic Congress could avoid it. “While I am a realist, I am probably the world’s greatest optimist, and I am confident that the Congress will avoid that,” he said.
“Well, you couldn’t be an astronaut without being an optimist,” Mikulski responded. She argued, though, that NASA should have some contingency plans in place if there is a budget sequester, something Bolden said the agency hasn’t done to date. “I really would recommend both to the administration and to you,” she warned, “to really be ready for some real challenges.”
The hearing was the last one the subcommittee planned to perform before marking up its appropriations bill, which could come as soon as mid to late April. Since Sen. Hutchison is retiring after this year, Mikulski presented Hutchison at the beginning of the hearing with a gift: a small crystal space shuttle. Mikulski emphasized that the gift was from her, and not from Bolden. “I never get gifts from him,” she joked. “I’d rather have one from him.”