Wednesday’s hearing of the full House Science Committee on the utilization of the International Space Station (ISS) was relatively lightly attended, with only a handful of members of the committee (including its newest member, Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR)) questioning the assembled witnesses. The committee’s concerns focused on two issues: whether commercial cargo providers will enter service in time to avoid a disruption in operations of the ISS, and whether a new nonprofit organization is capable of managing research on the station.
“We have margin on orbit in terms of spares and consumables and research,” said NASA associate administrator William Gerstenmaier, which, coupled with flights by Europe’s ATV (which docked to the ISS late Wednesday) and Japan’s HTV later this year, “to last essentially about a year.” That, he felt, would provide sufficient time for Orbital Sciences Corporation and SpaceX to begin commercial cargo deliveries to the ISS.
“We’ve been assuming that we’ll get maybe one or two commercial cargo flights this year,” he said. “So we need something to occur within about the next year.” Asked by Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) if that meant he had a high level of confidence in those companies, Gerstenmaier responded, “They will meet the minimum milestones that I just described to you.”
Others were more skeptical. “I don’t know what to think,” committee chairman Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX) said after describing the extensive delays that both Orbital and SpaceX have experienced under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. “I hope NASA doesn’t squander the incredible potential for lifesaving research and other important science.”
Asked during the hearing about the development of a government crew capability to access the ISS, Gerstenmaier said that it was unlikely any additional funding could move up the 2017 date of the first Orion test flight on a Space Launch System (SLS) booster. However, additional money could move up the first crewed SLS/Orion flight, now planned for 2021. “We would have the option of potentially moving that date forward as we refine our budgets,” he said. “The earliest we could be potentially there to help out with station would be probably in the 2018 time frame.”
The work of the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS), the nonprofit selected by NASA last year to manage research on the US segment of the station, also faced some scrutiny. “The former director of CASIS raised a number of serious concerns in her recent resignation letter,” said committee ranking member Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) in her opening statement, referring to the letter from Jeanne Becker a month ago. “This committee will need to better understand what the situation is given the important role [of CASIS] in International Space Station utilization.” She said she hoped that the committee would hold another hearing to get the perspectives of the research community.
“They gave to us an annual performance plan of objectives and milestones they were to accomplish during this year,” Gerstenmaier said of CASIS in response to a later question about the organization. “I have sent them a letter and asked them to respond to us by today or tomorrow on what their plan is to achieve those milestones that we’ve established with them.”
Edwards suggested that the Government Accountability Office (GAO) examine the effectiveness of CASIS. “For me, the resignation of the executive director and the problems that she highlighted are really troubling,” she said. On that request, she had the endorsement of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA). “I think it’s a request that we could all support,” he said.
Immediately after the hearing, Hall went to the American Astronautical Society’s Goddard Memorial Symposium in the DC suburb of Greenbelt, Maryland, where he received the organization’s John F. Kennedy Astronautics Award at a luncheon. In a brief speech at the luncheon, Hall mentioned the hearing he had just chaired. “I don’t care how they get there, I just want to know when they’re going to get there,” he said of ISS cargo and crew transportation. Then he raised a few eyebrows. “The most important thing to me is to save that space station and get it back to working again.” The ISS, of course, is not in immediate peril, although as noted at the hearing, station operations could be threatened in a year if commercial cargo doesn’t come online as currently planned.