NASA administrator Charles Bolden appeared before the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee in a hearing about NASA’s fiscal year 2015 budget request Tuesday morning—and into the afternoon as well, as the hearing, which started at 9:30 am, didn’t wrap up until about 1 pm. The first part of the hearing, lasting more than an hour, went into a report on NASA security issues, but that still left more than two hours to go into various budgetary and other policy issues, with the debate between committee members and Bolden getting heated at times. Some of the key issues discussed:
Commercial Crew: As in past hearings and other appearances, Bolden emphasized the need for the commercial crew program to be fully funded—$848 million—in the administration’s 2015 budget request in order to keep the program on schedule to begin flights in 2017. “If we don’t get the finding that we requested, we’re going to slip again,” he said, referring to earlier slips in the program that Bolden blamed on Congress not fully funding the program.
On that last point, subcommittee chairman Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) took issue. “I think you’ve misled people,” Wolf said. “Congress has provided a lot of funding for commercial crew, particularly once you take into account the larger fiscal situation. There’s never been a year that it was zero,” he said. “The appropriation has been at or above the authorized level in all the years but one.”
“I’m not sure where the [committee] staff says that you’ve given us more than we’ve asked. That’s just inaccurate.” Bolden responded, who appeared to take Wolf’s criticism personally. “Every time I come here, my integrity is impugned,” he said. “I am tired of having my integrity impugned by members of the committee and the staff.”
The squabble between Wolf and Bolden appeared to be based on a misunderstanding: Wolf was referring to figures in the NASA authorization act of 2010, which authorized $312 million for commercial crew in 2011 and $500 million in 2012 and 2013; Bolden was referring to the figures in the administration’s budget request, which have been much higher in recent years and not fully funded by Congress, but were on or close to the authorized amounts in 2011 and 2013 (pre-sequester), but fell about $100 million short in 2012.
A little later in the hearing, Bolden expressed his regrets for the outburst. “Mr. Chairman, I apologize for losing my temper,” he said. “I get hot sometimes and I think I misunderstood you.”
Later in the hearing, Bolden said he couldn’t go into details about the ongoing competition for commercial crew because of the procurement “blackout” that will last under contracts are awarded in August. While three companies currently have funded commercial crew awards—Boeing, Sierra Nevada, and SpaceX—he professed ignorance as to who would be competing.
“I don’t know who the providers are, I don’t know what platform they’re planning to use,” he said. “Sierra Nevada, I hope, is one. Sierra Nevada, to my knowledge, is not using Russian engines.” When Rep. John Culberson said that both Sierra Nevada and Boeing are using the Atlas V, powered by a Russian-built RD-180 engine, Bolden responded, “I didn’t know that.”
Relations with Russia: The current state of Russian relations, particularly in light of a memo last week breaking off cooperation between NASA and the Russian government with the exception of ISS, also came up in the hearing. Bolden said that, despite the new policy, relations with Roscosmos are doing well. Rep. Andy Harris (R-MD) asked about contingency plans for the ISS in the event relations worsen. “The contingency for what you’re addressing is maintaining the relationship,” Bolden responded, blaming the “alarmist” media in both the US and Russia for misreporting that the ban covered all NASA cooperation with Russia. “When [Roscosmos director Oleg] Ostapenko and I talked [last week], he was very comforted that our relationship had not been broken, had not changed.”
Indeed, later in the hearing, Bolden suggested that there was a growing number of exceptions to the policy suspending cooperation NASA cooperation with the Russian government. “On a case-by-case basis, we get an activity excepted from any prohibition of cooperation,” he said, through the use of an interagency review process. In addition to the original exception for ISS operations, Bolden said there are now exceptions covering NASA participating in the COSPAR conference being held in Moscow in August, as well as a Russian-provided instrument on NASA’s Mars Curiosity rover, with exceptions for three other activities currently under consideration. “They are lesser types of projects, or projects in the making, that haven’t started yet,” he said of the unnamed projects. It wasn’t clear, from those comments, exactly what was blocked from cooperation now.
SOFIA: Rep. Mike Honda (D-CA), whose district
is adjacent to NASA’s Ames Research Center, questioned Bolden about the decision to cut funding for the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) airborne observatory, a program run out of Ames. [A spokesman for Rep. Honda noted Wednesday that part of Ames/Moffett Federal Airfield is just inside the boundaries of his district.] “What specific scientific and technical review and analysis was performed during the FY15 budget formulation process to support the proposal to cancel SOFIA?”
Bolden said the plans to mothball SOFIA are still a “proposal,” and that a joint task force of NASA and the German space agency DLR were still reviewing options, with a report from them due by the end of this month. “We have not made the final determination that SOFIA will be put into mothballs,” he said. “We are still looking for ways to save SOFIA.”
“Your response is appreciated, but not sufficient in my mind,” Honda responded. Bolden said later that, if science from SOFIA was sufficiently compelling, “my guess is that there will be people standing in line to add their funds to maintaining SOFIA.”
Planetary Science: As in recent years, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA), whose district includes JPL, questioned the level of funding for planetary science in NASA’s budget, including extended mission funding as well as the Mars 2020 flagship mission. “I’m concerned about the profile for this mission,” he said of Mars 2020, “which is backloaded, as well as repeated disquieting rumors I’ve been hearing regarding slipping the launch date to 2022.”
Bolden said Mars 2020 was on schedule. “Hopefully everyone will tell you that the 2015 budget does support Mars 2020 in 2020,” he said. As for extended mission funding, in particular missions like Opportunity and Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter, Bolden offered partial support for such funding. “I think extended missions are great until they start to jeopardize the ability to fly new missions,” he said. “The totality of our extended missions today is keeping us from being able to do some of the exciting things that we would really like to do.”
Asteroid Redirect Mission: Rep. Wolf raised questions about the support there was for NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). “The mission does not seem to have captured the imaginations among Congress or the American public,” he said, adding that he understood House authorizers, in their new draft bill, would prohibit spending on the mission.
Later in the hearing, Culberson brought up criticism of ARM brought up last year by Steve Squyres, the planetary scientist who chairs the NASA Advisory Council. “The asteroid retrieval mission, as Chairman Wolf has said, is just not generating–”
Bolden interrupted. “Mr. Culberson, quite the contrary,” he said, saying that Squyres’s comments are from last year. “I think if you brought Steve Squyres in here today, he would say something different to you.”
SLS/Orion: Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL) pressed Bolden on funding for the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket and Orion spacecraft, which in the FY15 budget request is below the levels in the FY14 final appropriations bill. “There is some concern that OMB and OSTP may be out of step with most Americans about the fact that Americans want the United States to lead the world in human exploration of space beyond low Earth orbit,” he said. He asked Bolden if it would make sense downselect to a single commercial crew provider, thus requiring less money, and using that funds instead for SLS and Orion to keep them on schedule.
Bolden’s answer was succinct: “No, sir.” He again emphasized that commercial crew required full funding to be on schedule for 2017, while SLS and Orion are being managed to be ready together in 2017. “My advice to this committee, and all committees, has been to allow me the flexibility to spend as necessary such that SLS and Orion get to the finish line together. If I had finished SLS in 2013, I would have parked it in a barn somewhere because I have no crew vehicle to put on it.”
Before asking for that flexibility, he had another, more general plea for appropriators. “We’ve got to start talking to each other and understanding why you pay me to do what you pay me to do.” At the end of today’s hearing, there was plenty of talking, but perhaps not as much understanding.