Congress, NASA

House panel agrees on lack of NASA strategic direction, but disagrees on what it should be

In the search for consensus for the future of NASA, there was some consensus during a hearing Wednesday by the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee: members are, by and large, not particularly supportive of the agency’s current direction. However, there were far fewer signs of consensus of what alternative approach NASA should pursue.

After the Columbia accident nearly a decade ago “we emerged with guiding principles and goals that were overwhelmingly endorsed by both Republicans and Democrats in the House and Senate, resulting in the NASA authorization acts of 2005 and 2008,” said Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), the outgoing chairman of the committee, in his opening statement. The consensus in NASA’s direction outlined in those bills was broken by the Obama Administration in 2010, he claimed. “The current agreement, if it can be called that, is not a consensus as much as it is a compromise,” he said of the 2010 NASA authorization act. “It’s been clear over the last few budget cycles that there are fundamental disagreements.”

Former astronaut Ron Sega reviewed the National Research Council’s (NRC’s) report on NASA’s strategic direction, released last week, which found “no national consensus on strategic goals and objectives for NASA.” Like the committee as a whole, Sega did not offer any recommendations, or preferences regarding the options identified in the report. When asked by Hall about reaction to the report from the administration, he said the report was “well received” when the committee briefed NASA administrator Charles Bolden and staff last week. John Holdren, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy, was also briefed on the report and “they were mostly in a listening mode,” Sega said.

While Sega wouldn’t endorse a particular option, former House Science Committee chairman Robert Walker did, expressing a preference for increased partnerships by NASA, particularly with the private sector, as a means of closing the gap identified in the NRC report between NASA’s missions and its budgets. “No federal budget in the foreseeable future is going to provide NASA with the money it needs to do everything we want it to do,” he said. He supported in particular commercial sponsorships, saying that allowing companies to effectively buy naming rights to NASA missions could bring in hundreds of millions of dollars above and beyond federal funding: “When the GoDaddy Rover is traversing Martian terrain, we will be more solidly on our way to fulfilling our destiny in the stars.”

The idea of selling naming rights to missions did get some pushback from Rep. Brad Miller (D-NC). “I just can’t quite imagine that picture of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, or Ed White walking in space, in spacesuits that made them look like NASCAR drivers,” the retiring congressman said. (Miller later hastened to add that he has nothing against NASCAR per se; “I didn’t run for reelection but I do want to be able to go out in public.”) He also said that sponsorships may not provide a stable source of funding.

The conclusion in the NRC report that NASA’s goal of a human asteroid mission by 2025 isn’t widely accepted either inside or outside of the space agency also came up during the hearing. Scott Pace of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute suggested going to the Moon instead would create a stronger basis for international cooperation, noting interest in lunar missions by Europe, Russia, and several Asian nations. “There are many geopolitical, scientific, exploration, commercial, and educational objectives that could be achieved at the Moon,” he said. “And in contrast, the case for a human mission to an asteroid is unpersuasive and unsupported by technical or international realities. We should be visionary, but focused on practical actions.”

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), who will chair the committee next year, asked if there were any alternatives for a human mission to an asteroid, citing the lack of support noted in the NRC report. Sega noted a common long-term theme in past space exploration policies has been sending humans to Mars. “General Sega, do you think we should reconsider that mission to the near Earth asteroid?” Smith asked. “The committee didn’t adress that directly, but there were many questions that concerned that as the path forward,” Sega responded.

Smith also quizzed Pace on public interest in space exploration and what goals the agency should pursue. “Public opinion has actually been remarkably stable for space activity” over the years, Pace said. “The American public have a sense, I think, that we’re an exploring nation, we’re a pioneering nation, and they expect, or assume, that our leadership is, in fact, doing that.”

But the meaning of space leadership and exploration varied among the committee’s members. Some, like Hall, continued to regret the cancellation of Constellation. Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) said it was fortunate that Congress mandated the development of the heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) rocket; while he supported commercial cargo and crew efforts, he said, “it’s up to NASA to develop the heavy-lift rocket because the private sector doesn’t have enough funds to do it by itself and that heavy-lift rocket needs enough thrust to overcome the administration’s shortsightedness.”

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who, like Sensenbrenner, vied for the committee chairmanship but lost to Smith, had a very different vision of what NASA should be doing. Given the growing national debt, he warned, “I don’t believe the American people are going to put NASA on the top of their priority list, which means that we have to be even more creative” in coming up with goals and missions for NASA. He suggested the agency should take on bigger roles in space debris cleanup and planetary defense. “I believe that NASA should be the one who is actually pushing the envelope on what space-based assets will benefit humankind in the future.”

Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) raised the question of whether NASA should have a major human spaceflight program at all. “Given the expense of the redundancy necessary in a manned program” and the need to maximize the benefits of the agency’s limited budget, he suggested, “isn’t it time to say that maybe manned programs should be really rare and reserved for rare occasions because they just don’t deliver the bang for the buck?” That was opposed by some of the witnesses, including Pace, who noted that NASA is more than just a science agency. “Human spaceflight is probably the most interdisciplinary scientific and technical activity that this country can engage in,” he said. “That’s where the benefit is, from pushing into the unknown.”

The hearing itself lasted more than two and a half hours, although that length was due in part to accolades for Hall, who is stepping down from the chairmanship of the committee, and Hall himself offering farewells to the members who are leaving Congress through retirements or losing reelection. (That got a bit awkward when it came to one leaving member, Rep. Todd Akin (R-MO), who lost a Senate race in part due to controversial statements about rape. “He’s a good man. He served well for us,” Hall said of Akin, who did not participate in the hearing.) The hearing, the last scheduled by the committee for this Congress, ended with a feeling of dissatisfaction about NASA’s current direction, but also a feeling it will be a challenge for the next Congress to find consensus on an alternative direction.

28 comments to House panel agrees on lack of NASA strategic direction, but disagrees on what it should be

  • common sense

    I think we need to have two political parties. The Party of Reason and that of Idiocy. Members of either the Republican or Democratic party can apply. I don’t know if “sponsorships” are the actual vehicle but partnerships definitely are. NASCAR drivers… But I will say this and I am not knowledgeable in NASCAR science but how many committees did Congress set up to keep NASCAR alive? Seems to me they can manage by themselves. So before making absurd comparisons I would hope some of these people would actually think and not make fool of themselves.

    Voice of reason:

    “former House Science Committee chairman Robert Walker did, expressing a preference for increased partnerships by NASA, particularly with the private sector, as a means of closing the gap identified in the NRC report between NASA’s missions and its budgets. “No federal budget in the foreseeable future is going to provide NASA with the money it needs to do everything we want it to do,” he said. He supported in particular commercial sponsorships, saying that allowing companies to effectively buy naming rights to NASA missions could bring in hundreds of millions of dollars above and beyond federal funding: “When the GoDaddy Rover is traversing Martian terrain, we will be more solidly on our way to fulfilling our destiny in the stars.””

    Voice of idiocy:

    Rep. Brad Miller (D-NC). “I just can’t quite imagine that picture of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin on the Moon, or Ed White walking in space, in spacesuits that made them look like NASCAR drivers,” the retiring congressman said.

  • Guest

    It was interesting to watch Sensenbrenner lie about the Constellation program.

    Our ‘international partners’ in going back to the moon, lol.

    So many lies I couldn’t keep track of them.

    • E.P. Grondine

      Hi Guest –

      While I have not watched this video, and will not be able to due to time constraints, and also disagree with the gentleman over impeachable offenses – while the Congressman may have made several statements in error, its highly unlikely that he deliberately and intentionally lied about anything.

      • Guest

        These are members of the congressional science and technology committee and this was a congressional hearing on NASA’s historical and future strategic direction, by definition they are supposed to be knowledgeable and informed.

  • Ben Russell-Gough

    It’s unfortunate but I’m afraid that the politicians are going to have to bite the bullet – if they want NASA to do great things, then either they have to appropriate the necessary cash or they have to let them find cheaper means via commercial providers. I really don’t think there is a third path.

    For what it’s worth, the headline of this thread represents everything that’s wrong with NASA’s current political direction: Everybody agrees that things have gone wrong but no-one agrees what should be done about it and, rather than compromise, they’re letting the ship drift off the edge of the waterfall whilst they squabble.

    Come to think of it, that pretty much sums up the problem in every part of the American state at the moment.

  • They want their giant phallic symbol (Constellation, SLS) but won’t pay for it nor will they say what NASA is supposed to do with it.

    They directed NASA to give them a report recommending what to do with it. NASA did that in August. You can still hear the crickets chirping.

  • amightywind

    “I don’t believe the American people are going to put NASA on the top of their priority list

    Followed closely by…

    …space debris cleanup and planetary defense

    I believe he forgot climate defense. I wonder how he could have been passed over for the chairmanship?

    The GOP deserves what it gets. Although I do believe offering planetary defense could be revenue positive. Here’s the idea. Calculate the impact point of an incoming asteroid. Notify the target country. Withhold defense, extort money, profit!

  • Tried for laughs, I got a copy of the September 2009 presentation of the Augustine Committee conclusions by Norm Augustine to the Senate Space Subcommittee. It’s now on YouTube at:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kY-W_GGzjyE

    Compare that with yesterday’s House science committee hearing at:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lbNQYiB-XmY

    In more than three years, nothing has changed.

    The message was the same — you’re asking NASA to do too much without providing a clear direction or adequate funding.

    In both cases, Congress heaps the responsibility and blame on the White House — even though it’s Congress that decides funding, not the White House.

    Another reason to watch the Augustine video is that it contains the skeletal structure for what would become the Obama administration’s space policy in a few months.

    One anecdote … Augustine was asked how long he thought it would take for the COTS vendors to fly cargo to ISS. He said the vendors estimated three years, but he thought it would be six. Well, the vendors were right. SpaceX did it in three years.

  • common sense

    You know I think the hypocrisy of those Congress people really knows no bound.

    Regardless of whether NASA (HSF) has become a jobs program these people waste taxpayers’ money in senseless debates and committees all the while over 20,000 people are at risk of losing their jobs: http://nasawatch.com/archives/2012/12/budget-cliff-up.html

    One might argue why we should employ people if we don’t know what they are supposed to do but that would be just upping hypocrisy by another several notches. Indeed the President told Congress what he wanted NASA to do with an increased budget yet those idiots (and others within NASA!!!) decided to go against it, just like when the GOP opposed him when he wanted to give some money to Florida to help people out of the recession.

    The trouble and I think this really is where the GOP was (still is at least with these constituents) really very strong is that most of all those people ready to be laid off support the GOP, a party that will ultimately responsible for the lay-offs.

    Get the government out of my NASA!!! he? What d’you say? Good slogan?

    Anyway…

    How about we talk SLS now? Or MPCV, or DIRECT, or ISS, or L-2, or…? The real important things.

    • The trouble and I think this really is where the GOP was (still is at least with these constituents) really very strong is that most of all those people ready to be laid off support the GOP, a party that will ultimately responsible for the lay-offs.

      Yes, right. It has absolutely nothing to do with intransigence and ideological zeal for tax-rate increases that don’t even start to address the problem.

      • Robert G. Oler

        Yes, right. It has absolutely nothing to do with intransigence and ideological zeal for tax-rate increases that don’t even start to address the problem.”

        No it doesnt and yes the tax increases will help address the problem. The tax cuts helped cause it.

        This is like when Clinton raised taxes…when the economy starts booming you folks will have to figure out a reason other then what actually caused it RGO

        • common sense

          There was another guy before Clinton who rose taxes right? Not quite on his dead body though if I recall. He may have been from another party whose name I cannot really pronounce any more. Hmmm who could that be? Dunno.

      • common sense

        Please remind us what is being used to pay the salaries of the civil servants and the contractors who so badly oppose tax rate increase.

        Yeah well…

  • My blog post today on Congressional hypocrisy between the Augustine report and this week’s National Academies report:

    http://spaceksc.blogspot.com/2012/12/the-more-they-stay-same.html

    A classic example is SLS. Augustine warned Congress about giving NASA projects with inadequate funding. Congress created SLS, was warned by the Booz Allen review that the funding was inadquate, but Congress told NASA to find a way to build it within the authorized amount.

    So here we are this week with yet another report warning Congress that it keeps telling NASA to build wasteful programs without providing adquate funding.

    Lather. Rinse. Repeat.

    • vulture4

      Back in the 1970′s during development of the Shuttle we had a speaker from JSC, who said that program was also underfunded.

      • Guest

        The Space Shuttle was a reusable space plane that was radically advancing the state of the art known at the time, the SLS on the other hand is an expendable heavy lift launch vehicle not even as efficient as the Saturn V – using space shuttle components. Even the Saturn V could have been retroactively made reusable using today’s knowledge base and technology. And both the Saturn V and Space Shuttle, even with all of their technical and financial flaws, had missions to complete, and successfully completed those missions. Can you see the difference there? NASA and Boeing today can’t even get a single legacy vehicle design right, and are unwilling to take on the relatively easy retrofits necessary to bring it up to modern reusable standards – as per SpaceX and Newspace best practices.

        • common sense

          You are not right.

          X-37

          • Guest

            Ok, I concede that point. But it also is launched on a Lockheed Martin launch vehicle and I can find no evidence of any total program costs being published, or any competitively bid aspects of the program, and nobody knows what this vehicle’s mission actually is, and I also can’t find any evidence that the technology developed has benefited anyone outside of Boeing, so it is rather difficult to ascertain it’s value.

            • common sense

              X-37 was the Boeing response to NASA OSP. It was killed when OSP became CEV and transferred to AF. IF the requirements make sense Boeing will deliver. Lockheed won CEV only on political grounds. Orion is the NG-Boeing design not the Lockheed design that was then bid. Oh we’ll…

        • Coastal Ron

          Guest wrote:

          The Space Shuttle was a reusable space plane that was radically advancing the state of the art known at the time…

          Well they did try to advance the state of the art, but in the end the Shuttle was an evolutionary dead-end, in that it has no direct progeny or “Mark II” versions that replaced it.

          All in all it was a failed experiment that went on for probably 15-20 years too long.

          Even the Saturn V could have been retroactively made reusable using today’s knowledge base and technology.

          You are thinking backwards, in that you are trying to perfect a solution before the problem has been defined.

          The Saturn V did it’s job well, which was to be the quickest way to beat the Soviets to the Moon. But once that political goal was reached, there were no other goals that it was needed for. No defined “National Imperatives”. So evolving the Saturn V would have ended having the same problem as building the SLS – there is no defined need.

          This is an easy experiment to run at home. Just define the payloads a SLS-class launcher would be needed to lift to LEO (and beyond if you want) over a 10 year period. Then multiply each of those payloads by the estimated program cost (I use the low number of $10B each), and see if it fits within NASA’s current budget profile. And according to NASA, plan for two launches per year (any less would not be safe).

          If it doesn’t fit within NASA’s current budget profile, then the programs won’t get funded, and there is no need for an SLS-class launcher, reusable or not. And if those payload missions are no larger than 53mt in mass, then SpaceX can launch them, and NASA can put the money saved towards building more mission payloads.

          Does that make sense to you?

    • Robert G. Oler

      At 1.5 billion a year its hard to see SLS is underfunded. Same for Orion. RGO

  • Coastal Ron

    Guest said:

    NASA and Boeing today can’t even get a single legacy vehicle design right, and are unwilling to take on the relatively easy retrofits necessary to bring it up to modern reusable standards – as per SpaceX and Newspace best practices.

    NASA didn’t design the SLS, Congress did. It’s pretty much defined by the law that created it. NASA didn’t even want a new heavy-lift rocket, they wanted to work on the rocket engine technologies needed for a future heavy-lift rocket.

    And regarding the Congressionally-designed SLS, how the heck do you propose to “bring it up to modern reusable standards”? Where are these standards defined? What other reusable rockets are there, and why do you think they scale up to what the Congressionally-designed SLS is supposed to be capable of doing?

    Lastly, you apparently think it’s still worthwhile building an HLLV, even though there are no funded uses for it now, or planned. Why waste the money now?

  • Vid

    If one chooses to look, the national benefits from development of space-based solar power are persuasive. Given large-scale deployment of SPS and the related buildup of infrastructure and capabilities all other NASA goals would be much easier to reach. Given the launching of the space industrial revolution further NASA funding for planetary science and other efforts to advance a solar civilization, could be funded through a tax on space commerce. A role for NASA would remain into the foreseeable future to go beyond the beaten path. Congress should look at space much as the planners for the Tennessee Valley Authority. Take a long term view – 25, 50 or more years. The TVA of the future is there to build in orbit to provide the US, and the rest of the world with clean, secure and low cost electrical power. Building the TVA of the future is a clear way to exit from the present global economic crisis. Why continue a situation where thousands graduate with PhDs with only the prospect of post docs and less ahead? Will those who make rockets for war ever give up their bases of power until they can make money building rockets for peace?

  • Coastal Ron

    Vid wrote:

    Given large-scale deployment of SPS and the related buildup of infrastructure and capabilities all other NASA goals would be much easier to reach.

    NASA’s charter is not to be a power company, and they would be completely inept in trying to “help” companies to develop such capabilities.

    While space-based solar power may one day prove feasible, and even economical, right now there isn’t an economics argument to go after it – the supply & demand forces for terrestrial power, plus the comfort level everyone has in current power sources, means that no one is going to want to spend the $Billions needed to prove it out. There is no known ROI.

    The best business ideas are the ones where there is a customer ready to pay for a proposed solution – go find that first customer, then start on the funding for building out SPS.

    Given the launching of the space industrial revolution further NASA funding for planetary science and other efforts to advance a solar civilization, could be funded through a tax on space commerce.

    Unless NASA’s charter is changed, there is current legal framework to do that. All taxes taken in go into a general fund, unless Congress specifies otherwise. There is nothing stopping Congress from indexing NASA’s funding to an arbitrary number today, like 1% of the total budget, or $1B for each confirmed yeti sighting per year. A “space industrial revolution” has no real connection to “planetary science”, just like yeti sightings have no connection to budget funding levels.

    • Coastal Ron wrote:

      Unless NASA’s charter is changed …

      Idle thought … What would it take to get Congress to agree to restructure NASA?

      The last time something like that happened was 1958, in the wake of Sputnik. Working with the Eisenhower administration, Congress decided to combine the old NACA with space research agencies in the Defense Department to create NASA.

      We’ve been stuck with that model ever since.

      In my mind, I’ve noodled with just what would it take to prod Congress into breaking up the current pork-laden leviathan that NASA has become.

      I can’t see Congress doing it unless it was some sort of national crisis again, either an external threat or some disaster that was so bad (e.g. the SLS test launch takes out Orlando) that Congress decides a fundamental change is required.

      Does anyone have any thoughts?

      • common sense

        8% cut might just do it. We ll see.

      • Coastal Ron

        Stephen C. Smith wrote:

        I can’t see Congress doing it unless it was some sort of national crisis again, either an external threat or some disaster that was so bad (e.g. the SLS test launch takes out Orlando) that Congress decides a fundamental change is required.

        I agree. Sequestration isn’t reason enough, since if I recall the way it’s set up is that every program has to take the same reduction – no favorites.

        Inertia in Congress is pretty hard to overcome, and it seems to me that changes are either small and incremental, or the dam bursts loose and Congress goes along with major changes that actually do seem to make sense. Constellation was the later, since it was obvious to Congress that the program was not affordable, and the Augustine Commissions results provided the non-partial justification.

        But any major change to NASA is going to have to be pushed by the Administration, and we have yet to see someone develop anything resembling a new charter for NASA. The House proposed bill was laughable, but the Administration hasn’t indicated it wants to make any big changes yet. Yet.

        Still early in Obama’s 2nd term, which officially hasn’t started, and this minor issue of sequestration has to get sorted out.

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