Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) is one of the most powerful members of Congress given her position as chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee. She’s used that power to help NASA—or, at least, specific programs within the agency—win funding. However, she’s not shy to speak up when she thinks the agency is off course, which is what she did on Thursday.
“I was deeply troubled to receive the President’s budget,” she said at a hearing by the committee’s Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) subcommittee Thursday morning on the NASA budget proposal. “I was deeply troubled in the area of NASA because there was a reduction of $186 million from fiscal [year] 2014.” In addition, she said she was concerned about a $200-million cut in programs administered by the Goddard Space Flight Center (or “Goddard Space Agency,” as she called it) in her home state, as well as cuts in the Orion spacecraft and the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket.
NASA administrator Charles Bolden, the sole witness at the hour-long hearing, worked to reassure Mikulski that Goddard was not being singled out. “I firmly believe that Goddard will continue to be an integral part of all the programs we have going forward,” he said.
Nonetheless, Mikulski pressed Bolden not to single out science programs—which constitute much of Goddard’s work—for cuts. “I don’t want to talk about future missions. I want to talk about now,” she said. “I don’t want science to fund, to be a bank account, for other projects that might or might not happen in the future,” she said.
Much of the hearing, attended only by Mikulski and ranking member Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), covered familiar topics. Shelby expressed his worries about funding levels for SLS in particular, as well as the lack of transparency in the commercial crew program, saying that it used “the same flawed model” as the commercial cargo program.
As he has done in previous appearances, Bolden emphasized the need to fully fund commercial crew in the 2015 request to keep the program on track to start transporting astronauts to the International Space Station in 2017. “If the Congress funds to the President’s requested level in 2015, we’re on a good trajectory to get there,” he said, one of several similar statements he made at the hearing.
Bolden also, as he has done in recent appearances, sought to tamp down concerns about a loss of access to the station given the ongoing tensions with Russia. “What I am striving to do is continue the relationship I have with Mr. [Oleg] Ostapenko, who heads Roscosmos, to make sure he does everything he can in Russia to calm down the diplomats and the politicians there, as we’re trying to do here in the US,” said Bolden, who called the NASA partnership with Roscosmos “steady” and “firm.”
Bolden declined to speculate on whether the preliminary injunction filed late Wednesday against ULA and the Air Force regarding purchases of RD-180 rocket engines would affect NASA missions. Asked by Shelby if this injunction would prevent NASA from buying seats on Soyuz missions to the ISS, should the scope of the injunction expand to other Russian space programs, Bolden did say NASA had already paid for those seats through 2017 and thus he believed would not be directly impacted by the injunction.
At the end of the hearing, Mikulski said she expected that the appropriations committee would get its overall spending allocations by next week, and she said she hoped to have a CJS spending bill passed by the full committee before the Senate recesses at the end of June for the Independence Day break. “There is not new money on the horizon, so I think we have to be candid about that,” she warned. “Though we agree on the goals [of NASA], I’m not so sure we agree on some of these priorities.”