In a hearing about NASA’s fiscal year 2015 budget proposal by the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee on Thursday, many key members expressed concern about agency priorities, including funding levels for the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket and Orion spacecraft, while NASA administrator Charles Bolden argued that NASA’s commercial crew effort was its top priority.
“Congress has made clear that the Space Launch System (SLS) is a top priority of the Human Exploration program, yet for the third year in a row the administration has reduced the budget for this vital asset. The President’s budget seeks a reduction of $219 million for launch vehicle development,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the full House Science Committee, in a statement issued after the hearing. Those comments echoed what he and other key committee members said in their opening statements regarding SLS and Orion funding.
“Commercial crew is the critical need for this nation right now,” Bolden said in response to a question from the subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS), about the lower level of funding for SLS in the FY15 request versus the FY14 appropriations. “I don’t need a Space Launch System and Orion if I can’t get my crews to low Earth orbit.”
“Basically, you’re saying that you’re reducing the SLS/Orion budget in this to fund commercial crew,” Palazzo responded. “There’s a $219 million cut.”
Palazzo also pressed Bolden on the schedule for commercial crew, arguing that NASA has stayed on schedule for introducing commercial crew services by 2017 in the last couple of years despite the program not being fully funded; thus, he asked, why did the problem need full funding now to stay on schedule? Bolden noted that the commercial crew program originally had a goal of 2015 for beginning such flights. “We would now find ourselves months away from launching Americans from American soil, and I would not have to worry about paying the Russians another $450 million,” had the program been fully funded from the outset, he argued. “If we don’t get what the President requested, I can’t guarantee 2017, I can’t guarantee competition, and we will continue to pay the Russians.”
Bolden also clearly laid the blame for those delays on Congress. “This committee, this Congress, chose to rely on the Russians because they chose not to accept the President’s recommendation and request for full funding for commercial crew. You can’t have it both ways.”
The subcommittee’s ranking member, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), asked Bolden how confident he was that commercial providers could meet that 2017 schedule if the program does receive the requested $848 million in 2015. “It is high,” he responded. “My confidence level for making 2017 with robust competition is not as high.”
Later in the hearing, subcommittee vice chairman Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) took issue with Bolden’s comments. “I must admit, I am somewhat astonished by your testimony that shifts responsibility from this administration to Congress for America’s current inability to launch astronauts into space,” he said. Brooks blamed the Obama Administration for canceling the Constellation program, retiring the Space Shuttle, and other issues, including increasing funding for welfare programs “that put a higher priority on buying election votes, no matter the loss of funding for NASA.”
Bolden doubled down on his support for commercial crew. “If the Congress chooses not to fund commercial crew, this nation has no plan” for getting astronauts to the ISS if Russia cuts off access to the station, something he emphasized he didn’t think would happen.
During a later exchange with Brooks, Bolden said that without the ISS, he would recommend that SLS and Orion be cancelled. “I will go to the President and recommend that we terminate SLS and Orion because without the International Space Station, I have no vehicle to do the medical tests, the technology development, and we’re fooling everybody if we think we can go to deep space if the International Space Station is not there,” he said. “I don’t want anybody to think that I need an SLS or Orion if I don’t have the International Space Station.”