In a speech Thursday at a Capitol Hill luncheon organized by the Space Transportation Association (STA), NASA administrator Charles Bolden largely reiterated the agency’s support for commercial crew development and NASA’s new asteroid initiative, while defending cuts in the agency’s planetary sciences program and the reorganization of its education efforts.
As in testimony last week and a blog post earlier this week, Bolden made the argument that NASA’s commercial crew program needed to be fully funded in fiscal year 2014 to keep the program on track for beginning flights in 2017. “We’re running out of wiggle room” to keep that 2017 date, he said. “You’ve got to pay if you want something, and if the nation wants to have a commercial capability, an American capability, to get cargo and crew to low Earth orbit, you have to pay for it.” The extension of the agreement with Roscosmos for additional Soyuz flights to the ISS in 2017 was “something I did not want to do” because the price went up.
That commercial crew capability is a key element of supporting the International Space Station. Bolden repeated previous comments that, technically, operations of the ISS can be extended beyond 2020 to as late as 2028; however, the key issues will be whether the US and other partners can afford extending the station’s life into the 2020s, and if there’s sufficient utility from ISS research to do so. If the ISS life isn’t extended beyond 2020, he said, it may be difficult for companies to find a business case for commercial crew. “That’s the argument I hear from all of you,” he said, referring to the members of the audience from the space industry.
Bolden also discussed NASA’s asteroid initiative, whose centerpiece is a robotic mission to redirect a small near Earth asteroid into lunar orbit, to be visited by a crewed Orion spacecraft as early as 2021. Although the feasibility of that mission is still under study, he was optimistic it could take place by 2021. “It is intended that when we launch Orion in 2021, its destination will be the stable orbit point around the Moon where the asteroid is either on its way or is already there,” he said. “The likelihood [the asteroid will be there] is increasing every day” as NASA works to identify candidate asteroids for the mission.
Bolden also defended the use of a crewed Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) mission, launched on the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket, for that rendezvous with a captured asteroid. Other architectures using commercially-developed vehicles have been suggested, he said, but he concluded they weren’t currently viable. “The only way we can do that is with SLS and MPCV,” he said. “We are on a timetable.”
Bolden also used the asteroid initiative to defend the agency from cuts to NASA’s planetary sciences program in the FY14 budget proposal. “The FY14 request is actually up from where we were,” he said. (The FY14 request for planetary is $1.22 billion, down from the $1.5 billion the program got in FY12; figures for FY13 have yet to be finalized.) The decision to develop a Mars rover for launch in 2020, as well as asteroid work funded by the new initiative, means “we think we’re up in the planetary science program” compared to a year ago, he said.
He acknowledged, though, that planetary science was cut in part to cover cost increases with the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). “Somebody had to pay for James Webb, and it’s my fault,” he said. “I’m the guy who came into office thinking that James Webb was okay. And let me tell you what: the first review I did, I was devastated because I found it was not okay.” The program is now in much better shape, he said, but “if I screw it, you can fire me.”
Bolden also defended cuts in NASA’s education budget that are tied to a broader restructuring of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs across the federal government. “It is not slashed or gutted or anything,” he said of the education budget (at $94 million in the FY14 budget proposal versus $136 million in FY12.) The restructuring is designed to make programs more efficient, while also making NASA-unique capabilities, like communications sessions with the ISS, available to a far broader scope of users than possible today, citing as one example 4-H clubs supported by the Department of Agriculture. “It’s trying to make sure we get the best programs out there from the federal government agencies, and where there’s duplication we get rid of it. We are not decimating anyone’s programs.”
As he did in his Senate testimony last week, Bolden warned that if budget sequestration continued into fiscal year 2014, it would be difficult for NASA to maintain its current slate of programs as its topline budget would fall to as low as $16.1 billion. “We can’t do SLS, MPCV, JWST, International Space Station, science, all this stuff” at that funding level, he said. “And that’s going to be bad news for somebody, and it’s probably going to be bad news for me because I’m the one who’s going to have to say, ‘Guys, here’s what we’re not doing.’”
He added a bit of advice to Congress: “You make it incredibly challenging when you tell us to do something and you don’t fund it.”