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.