Congress, NASA

House and Senate to tackle NASA policy and budget issues this week

Congress is back from spring break, and that means a busy week in both the House and Senate as three different committees hold hearings and markup legislation involving both NASA policy and its fiscal year 2015 appropriations.

On Tuesday afternoon, the full House Science Committee will mark up HR 4412, the updated NASA authorization bill. The committee’s space subcommittee approved an amended version of the bill on April 9, authorizing only the already-approved fiscal year 2014 appropriations,but also including a number of policy provisions, including a requirement for NASA to provide a detailed exploration roadmap for sending humans to Mars. The markup, ironically, coincides with an “Exploration Forum” NASA is holding Tuesday afternoon at NASA Headquarters to “showcase NASA’s human exploration path to Mars.”

Wednesday morning, the House Appropriations Committee’s Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) subcommittee will mark up its proposed fiscal year 2015 appropriations bill, which funds NASA among other agencies. The draft bill hasn’t been released yet, but when it does it will provide some insights into Congressional thinking on issues like NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission, commercial crew, and SOFIA and planetary science mission funding, all topics that came up in the subcommittee’s April 8 hearing on the NASA budget.

A day later, the Senate Appropriations Committee’s CJS subcommittee will hold a hearing on the NASA budget, with NASA administrator Charles Bolden the sole scheduled witness. Earlier this month, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who chairs both the CJS subcommittee as well as the full committee, said she would seek to increase NASA’s proposed FY15 budget of $17.46 billion to at least the $17.65 billion finally appropriated for FY14.

14 comments to House and Senate to tackle NASA policy and budget issues this week

  • Hiram

    Sad to say, it’s been a long time since we’ve seen any kind of space policy leadership coming out of Congress. The question here is which direction they roll over. Congress wants some space leadership to come out of the Administration, which looks for space leadership from technologists and engineers, mostly at the agency. Aside from sci fi dreamers, those are the only people who are really interested in space are yet don’t understand how to exercise policy leadership in it. The nation wants a credible picture of why we need to send humans into space before looking for assurances that it can be achieved.

  • Coastal Ron

    This week should be a good indication of how much Congress is interested in funding something for the SLS to do. Unless they provide initial funding for SOMETHING other than building another Orion – like a mini station or some sort of HLV-sized fuel depot demonstrator – then that will be further indication that the SLS doesn’t have a long time to live (i.e. why continue building it if no one is going to fund a use for it).

    And for now the Administration has been putting a full court press on fully funding the Commercial Crew program, and not pushing for anything SLS related except for the initial funding for the ARM (which doesn’t fund the SLS, just the asteroid capture part).

    Yep, this week should be clarifying for a number of topics.

    • Hiram

      That’s a very good point about SLS payloads. It’s put up or shut up time in Congress, with regard to SLS. Now, an asteroid mission is NASA’s fast-talking answer to an SLS rationale. But it’s a mission with no legs. It’s about one, maybe two SLSs. NASA is working quietly on cis-lunar habs (e.g. Exploration Augmentation Module, or the Deep Space Habitat–DSH project.) Congress could layer some money on those, and some encouraging words. Those habitats are the most sensible Mars-forward concepts that are around right now that are something more than stunts, and could be developed and served by multiple SLSs.

      • Coastal Ron

        Hiram said:

        It’s put up or shut up time in Congress, with regard to SLS.

        There are many things starting to clarify with regards to the SLS.

        - NASA has now stated that the minimum flight cadence is at least one flight every 12 months, which from a scheduling standpoint you’d really like to have more demand than that since payloads slip launch dates all the time, and you wouldn’t want to ground the whole SLS program because one payload is late by six months.

        - Sometime this year (maybe even next month) NASA is supposed to come out with costing data for the SLS, and that I think is part of the Key Decision Point that is due too. More fodder for evaluation.

        - Later this week there could be info that is released that shows a significant delay in when the first Orion flight will be, which was scheduled for 2021. If that happens, there will be an SLS available for a 2021 flight, but no payload. That will be a good first test of the whole one-flight-every-12-months safety declaration, although they may not have declared the SLS “operational” by then. Still…

        - Any initial funding for SLS payloads that isn’t in the $Billions likely won’t be enough to get the payloads built and ready for the time the SLS is ready to launch them. This being NASA, simple payloads like the MSL cost $2.5B and took around 7 years to design, build and launch, and slightly larger payloads like the JWST cost $8B and can take well over a decade. We’re 8 years out, with no defined funding stream for once-a-year HLV-sized payload production.

        I don’t see the political will to address this, especially if the only critical issue is that the SLS is being built and it needs SOMETHING to launch – which is completely backward. The SLS should be being built BECAUSE there are payloads that require it, not that payloads must be built because the SLS has nothing to do otherwise.

        My $0.02

        • Egad

          - Sometime this year (maybe even next month) NASA is supposed to come out with costing data for the SLS, and that I think is part of the Key Decision Point that is due too.

          KDP-C, containing schedule and costing data for SLS up to EM-1, is due by COB this coming Wednesday, three days from now. We’ll see if that happens in any non-obfuscatory way.

  • Andrew Swallow

    … also including a number of policy provisions, including a requirement for NASA to provide a detailed exploration roadmap for sending humans to Mars.

    That is where NASA applies for money for landers, transfer vehicles and habitats.

    • Hiram

      “That is where NASA applies for money for landers, transfer vehicles and habitats.”

      Actually, that is where NASA admits that in this fiscal climate, it isn’t going to send humans to Mars for a LONG time. Doesn’t take a detailed roadmap to tell anyone a human trip to Mars is going to need landers, transfer vehicles and habitats. NASA could have applied for money so directed long ago. The details that Congress is looking for are completion cost and schedule, and those are going to look pretty frightful to them with what we know now.

      In fact, we have plenty of “detailed roadmaps”. Mars DRA 5.0 is about as detailed a vision as Congress would ever be able to digest. Of course, that DRA didn’t make cost and schedule explicit, because cost and schedule depend on a lot of stuff that a real flexible path and a properly funded tech investment strategy would have provided. It is, admittedly, not quite a “formal plan”. But no, we’re gonna have SLS, so hurry up and get us some landers, transfer vehicles, and habs that we can put on it!

  • josh

    I pretty much ignore the political machinations when it comes to hsf these days. It’s a bunch of bullshit anyway. What matters is commercial crew and spacex.

    • Fred Willett

      What matters is commercial crew and spacex.
      Precisely,

    • Hiram

      If you’re concerned with commercial crew and SpaceX, political machinations about NASA are actually pretty relevant. Relevant to the tune of nearly a billion dollars a year. But yes, those machinations are largely based in bullshit. It’s sad because they really don’t have to be. They could be visionary and even inspiring. Oh yeah, but vision and inspiration is what NASA is supposed to do — not Congress.

    • James

      What matters to Congress is short term impact of the decisions they make. In the short term, their interests are ‘pork in my district’. That means $ for SLS/Orion. It means that they don’t give a bugger about anything long term – least of which is any road map to Mars, or anything requiring them to commit to something long term. It means commercial crew is a threat to their pork machinations.

      What matters to the President is he gets to use NASA to his advantage, for the next 2.5 Years remaining in his administration. This translates to ‘avoid looking Bad by what NASA does’ as well. So, you won’t see any long term commitments that require monies now – it ain’t there; he’ll want NASA to reflect his thinking about technologies, commercial investments, inclusiveness, etc.

      What matters to NASA; does not matter here wrt Congress and Administration.

      NASA likes doing their missions, but in the background of that excitement, resignation and cynicism. NASA worker bees – not the celebrity leaders we see and hear in the press, whose job is to ‘fake it’ – the bees are fully aware that their SLS/Orion gravy train is busted, broken, has no real purpose, and will probably be cancelled – like all the other great ides for ‘next’ human space flight vehicle/endeavor .

      All of this is too bad, as there are plenty of good ideas for NASA HSF and Science, that are dying on the vine of this leaderless Titanic.

  • Hiram

    “What matters to Congress is short term impact of the decisions they make. In the short term, their interests are ‘pork in my district’.”

    I suspect it’s a bit more complicated than that. Congress would LOVE to see long term impact, and have their names be associated with what could be spun as the nation doing great things. But Congress just doesn’t see the route to that. Certainly not in human space flight, for which the value generated is largely symbolic. That being the case, oink, oink, oink is the rule.

  • My perspective is that it basically boils down to two options.  A series of large science payloads is not an option because of the cost and schedule uncertainty.  So the options are:
      1) An EML2 station which launches unlaunched ISS modules which would be modified for EML2 deep space use.  The real purpose of the EML2 is to give the SLS somewhere to go.  But the ostensible purpose would be to study the effects of GCRs on humans and to do great science such as the telerobotic control of a South Pole – Aitken Basin mission.  This approach would give reason for regular SLS launches namely for the switching out of crew at the EML2 station.
      2) Launching reusable lunar landers  filled with equipment and supplies for the establishment of a permanent lunar base.  The real purpose would be to give the SLS reasons for regular launch and to remove the political arguments against the Administration that it is letting China have the Moon and not leading the international community in space.  The ostensible reasons would be to gain surface experience in preparation for Mars.

    IMO, the EML2 Option is much more likely to be adopted than the Lunar Option for several reasons.  Politically, Obama took the Moon off the table.  The Lunar Option would appear as though it had made a fundamental mistake in space policy since it is apparently reversing itself.  Also, it had previously stated that we couldn’t do the Moon because an (Altair) lunar lander would cost too much to build.  Building a lander would be a politically damaging admission that that wasn’t true after all.

    Unfortunately, the EML2 Option may be politically and hence budgetarily “sustainable” but it is not “truly sustainable” in that it does nothing to reduce the cost for BLEO missions and hence would constrain NASA’s budget for decades not allowing important technology developments and also not allowing a virtuous cycle to develop by accessing lunar polar ice for cheap propellant within cis-lunar (and hence BLEO) space.

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