In a keynote address Monday at the Humans to Mars Summit in Washington, NASA administrator Charles Bolden made the case that, if NASA is to achieve the president’s goal of sending humans to at least the vicinity of Mars by the 2030s, it has to follow the approach NASA is currently using, including development of both commercial crew vehicles and the Space Launch System (SLS), and without making a stop along the way at the Moon.
As he has done in several other recent appearances, Bolden made an argument for fully funding NASA’s Commercial Crew Program in fiscal year 2014: $821 million in the administration’s budget proposal. “That is critical. That is the critical first step” for the future of NASA’s human spaceflight program, he said. Getting past that “initial hurdle of getting full funding for commercial crew” will eventually free up funding for use in technology development for later human missions beyond orbit, once the commercial providers enter service, he added later.
Bolden also argued that development of SLS was essential to NASA’s exploration plans, provided it was a phased approach that started, as NASA currently plans, with a vehicle that can place 70 metric tons into low Earth orbit, followed by later versions that will eventually be capable of putting up to 130 metric tons into LEO. He warned against any effort to start immediately with a 130-ton version of SLS. “What happens if we are forced to go right to a 130-metric-ton vehicle is that we are perilously along the way to what happened with Constellation, where we have a very robust launch vehicle and no money, no assets, to develop the other systems that allow us to explore,” he said.
Bolden, though, rejected the idea that the SLS could be replaced with alternative architectures that use smaller launch vehicles and orbiting propellant depots. “The number of launches required to support a human mission to Mars begins to make it very difficult and decreases the probability of success of those missions” if EELV-class rockets are used instead, he said. If NASA waited on the development of alternative rockets and propellant depots, “we won’t get to an asteroid in 2021 and we definitely won’t get to Mars in the 2030s, in my estimation.”
Bolden also discussed NASA’s plans for an asteroid retrieval mission, which he argued was essential in developing technologies needed for later human Mars missions. “Every single moment of our time and every single dollar of our assets must be dedicated to developing those technologies that allow us to go beyond low Earth orbit,” he said. “The President and Congress—most in Congress—have decided that we should be the leaders in going places that humans have never been before, and thus we decided on an asteroid strategy.”
“Moon, asteroid, Mars, are not either/ors. Humans will again return to the lunar surface. There is no question in my mind,” he said. However, with limited resources available, NASA can’t afford to go back to the Moon now, and Bolden said that any attempt to redirect NASA’s human spaceflight plans back there would keep NASA from achieving its Mars goals. “If we starting straying from our path and going to an alternative plan, where we decide we’re going to go back to the Moon and spend a little time developing the technologies and the systems we need, we’re doomed. We will not get to Mars in the 2030s, if ever, to be quite honest.”
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.”
On Tuesday, NASA announced it had extended a deal with the Russian space agency Roscosmos to provide crew transportation services to and from the International Space Station. The deal covers bringing six astronauts up to the ISS in 2016 and rescue and return services through 2017. The price: $424 million, or about $70 million per seat, up from the $63 million per seat in the previous agreement. (The press release indicates the agreement includes some services that were previously covered under a separate contract, complicating an apples-to-apples comparison.)
The contract extension as hardly a surprise, but NASA leadership used it as an opportunity to make the case for fully funding the agency’s commercial crew program so that additional extensions of the Soyuz deal aren’t needed. “Further delays in our Commercial Crew Program and its impact on our human spaceflight program are unacceptable. That’s why we need the full $821 million the President has requested in next year’s budget to keep us on track to meet our 2017 deadline and bring these launches back to the United States,” NASA administrator Charles Bolden said in a separate blog post yesterday.
Bolden made similar arguments last week in testimony to Congress. “This is a year of decision” for commercial crew, Bolden said last Thursday at a hearing on the NASA budget proposal by the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Commerce, Justice, and Science Subcommittee. “If we do not get $822 million in the 2014 budget as requested by the President, it will be my unfortunate duty to advise the Congress and the President that we probably will not make 2017 for the availability of an American capability to get our astronauts to space, and I will have to tell you that I’m going to have to come back and ask for authorization to once again pay the Russians to take our crews to space.” (The discrepancy between the $822 million above and the $821 million in yesterday’s blog post likely stems from the fact the budget specifically requests an amount between the two: $821.4 million.)
At that hearing, though, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), ranking member of both the CJS subcommittee and full appropriations committee, was critical of the funding sought for commercial crew, which he feared was coming at the expense of the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket. “This budget focuses, I believe, too heavily on maintaining the fiction of privately-funded commercial launch vehicles, which diverts, I think, critical resources from NASA’s goal of developing human spaceflight capabilities with the SLS,” he said in his opening statement. He said that the companies that have received funded Space Act Agreements were not as accountable as they should be regarding the progress they’ve made or in revealing how much of their own money they have invested in these efforts. “This sounds like a great arrangement for the companies, but I don’t believe it’s a great arrangement for the taxpayer.”
The speculation was at least fun while it lasted. On Thursday, Roll Call reported that Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), one of the few senators who shows a strong interest in space, was mulling a run for governor of Florida in 2014. Nelson was reelected to the Senate in 2012 and thus would not have to give up his seat to run for governor, unless he decided to resign to focus full-time on a gubernatorial run. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), who worked closely with Nelson on space policy, opted not to resign when she ran for governor of Texas in 2010; she lost the Republican primary to incumbent Rick Perry, and decided to retire instead of run again for the Senate in 2012.
That speculation, though, didn’t last long. On Friday, Nelson told MSNBC that he had “no intention of running for governor” in 2014. “I love this job as senator, except that I am very, very frustrated” by the difficulty in building consensus on issues, he said.
Nelson’s departure from the Senate, either to campaign for office or if he was elected governor, would have created something of a policy vacuum in the Senate on space issues. Nelson serves as the chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee’s space subcommittee, and is usually joined in hearings there by only the committee’s new ranking member, freshman Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who won the seat vacated by the retiring Hutchison.
Nelson also mentioned space in his latest newsletter last week, citing the new asteroid initiative in the administration’s 2014 budget request for NASA. “I announced that NASA is planning to catch an asteroid and place it in orbit around the moon,” he wrote, a reference to his statement about the initiative that came out several days before the official budget rollout. “And the program will mean jobs for Florida, and a reinvigorated space agency,” he added, without elaborating on exactly how many jobs, and where, would be enabled by this plan.
At yesterday’s House Science Committee space subcommittee hearing on the NASA budget, NASA administrator Charles Bolden was grilled on NASA’s asteroid mission plans, funding for the Space Launch System and Orion, commercial crew, and changes to NASA’s education program. He was also asked, though, about a program that has faded from view recently: the James Webb Space Telescope. Pressed by full committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) about reports of delays with instruments for the James Webb Space Telescope, Bolden commented, “That’s news to me.”
Smith was referring to a report released last week by the Government Accountability Office (GAO) assessing the state of various major NASA programs. “JWST is currently experiencing technical issues on the spacecraft and integrated science instrument module (ISIM) that have impacted the test schedule,” the report states. “[O]nly two instruments have been delivered for integration with ISIM and the other two instruments will be delivered at least 11 months late.”
That report raised new questions about the ability of JWST to meet its late 2018 launch date and stay within a budget of $8 billion through launch. “The project is worthwhile, and progress is being made, but it’s doubtful the current cost and schedule are realistic,” Florida Today columnist John Kelly wrote Sunday, concluding the report “hints at future delays.”
And while the issues with JWST might be news to Bolden, they’re not news for those who have been following the program. At a JWST town hall meeting at the most recent American Astronomical Society meeting, in California in January, officials noted the delays with the instruments but argued that they did not pose a risk to the program’s budget and schedule at that time. “We’ve been able to cover that with existing budget reserves and schedule reserves,” deputy program manager Eric Smith said of the instrument delays. “There is no change to the launch date and no change to the budget.”
At that same conference in January, though, a key member of the House Science Committee, vice chairman Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), expressed a lack of confidence that JWST was back on track, and said the committee would hold hearings on the status of the space telescope. So yesterday’s hearing is probably not the only time JWST will be discussed by the committee.
While much of the attention in the upcoming hearings this afternoon and tomorrow morning on NASA’s proposed fiscal year 2014 budget will be on items like the agency’s new asteroid initiative, SLS and Orion, and commercial crew, one other topic that may get some notice is the agency’s planetary science budget. Congress moved to partially restore a 20-percent cut for planetary science in NASA’s 2013 budget proposal, but that cut returns in the 2014 proposal, and there are concerns NASA may redirect funding allocated to planetary in the 2013 budget.
Last last week, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-CA) issued a press release expressing concern about NASA’s funding for planetary science. “There have been reports that the FY 2013 NASA Operating Plan will slash funding from the Planetary Science programs,” the release stated, referring to the operating plan that NASA must deliver to Congress by May 10 outlining any reprogramming of funds it is seeking from the levels in the 2013 appropriations bill. The release included a letter signed by Schiff as well as Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) and Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) and Barbara Boxer (D-CA) outlining specific issues with the FY13 spending bill. “While we fully understand that the funding levels enumerated in the bill and report are subject to change to reflect the across the board and sequester cuts, we expect that the balance among programs will remain consistent with the structure directed by Congress,” they write.
Meanwhile, the FY14 budget seeks $1.22 billion for planetary science in 2014, about the same as what NASA requested in 2013 and down fromthe $1.5 billion in 2012. In recent days The Planetary Society has been trying to drum up public support for increasing planetary funding, directing people to an online form calling for its funding to be restored (at least to 2012 levels.) “In difficult economic times, The Planetary Society recommends that Congress prioritize the effective and productive Planetary Science Division within NASA and fund it at $1.5 billion per year,” the organization stated in testimony it is submitting to Congress this week on the NASA budget proposal.
Several hearings this week by House and Senate committees will examine NASA’s 2014 budget request and its overall space exploration plans. The hearings start this afternoon with one on “Challenges and Opportunities for Human Space Exploration” by the Senate Commerce Committee’s space subcommittee. Scheduled to testify are NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations Bill Gerstenmaier, former astronaut Tom Stafford, and Steve Cook of Dynetics.
The House Science Committee’s space subcommittee will hold a hearing Wednesday afternoon on NASA’s fiscal year 2014 budget request. NASA administrator Charles Bolden is the sole witness.
Last, and perhaps most important, is a hearing by the Commerce, Justice, and Science subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee on the NASA FY14 budget proposal, scheduled for 9:30 am Thursday. Bolden will testify at that hearing, along with NASA inspector general Paul Martin. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), who chairs the full appropriations committee along with the CJS subcommittee, said last week she would support the administration’s new asteroid initiative included in the budget request, but raised concerns about the level of funding for Orion included in the proposal.
Sunday afternoon Orbital Sciences Corporation successfully launched its Antares rocket on its inaugural flight, a test mission carrying a demonstration payload and several smallsats. Company officials said the launch, one of the final milestones in the company’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) award from NASA, went well, paying the way for a launch this summer of a Cygnus cargo spacecraft on Antares to the International Space Station.
Within a half-hour of liftoff, the White House released a statement from Office of Science and Technology Policy director John Holdren. “The growing potential of America’s commercial space industry and NASA’s use of public-private partnerships are central to President Obama’s strategy to ensure U.S. leadership in space exploration while pushing the bounds of scientific discovery and innovation in the 21st century,” Holdren said in the brief statement. “With NASA focusing on the challenging and exciting task of sending humans deeper into space than ever before, private companies will be crucial in taking the baton for American cargo and crew launches into low-Earth orbit.”
Two Democratic members of the House Science Committee also marked the successful flight in a press release (not yet posted on their website.) “Having a safe, reliable, and cost effective cargo resupply capability is critical to the full and productive utilization of the ISS,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), ranking member of the full committee, in her congratulatory statement. “This new era of launch activities will aid economic growth in the Delmarva region. In the months and years ahead, continued teamwork will be critical to the completion of Orbital’s first demonstration flight to the ISS and subsequent operational flights in performance of its Commercial Resupply Services contract (CRS) with NASA,” said Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), ranking member of the committee’s space subcommittee.
And Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), an avid supporter of Wallops Flight Facility, where the launch took place, also congratulated the launch in a stream of tweets Sunday evening:
When the administration released its fiscal year 2014 budget proposal last week, Rep. Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Science Committee, expressed some skepticism about NASA’s new asteroid initiative contained in it, including plans to redirect a small near Earth object to lunar orbit to be visited by astronauts. “Seemingly out of the blue, this mission has never been evaluated or recommended by the scientific community and has not received the scrutiny that a normal program would undergo,” he said in a statement.
In a hearing on the overall White House R&D budget request earlier this week, Smith again raised questions regarding whether an asteroid mission made sense. “Beyond low Earth orbit of the station, where are the next destinations for our astronauts to explore?” Smith asked in his opening statement. “Is an asteroid the next destination, as the President suggested three years ago? Or is the Earth’s Moon a more compelling place for American astronauts to return, rather than finding an asteroid to pull into the Moon’s orbit?”
The first question Smith posed to the hearing’s sole witness, presidential science advisor John Holdren, was about that mission, citing last December’s report by a National Research Council committee that found little enthusiasm for an asteroid mission within or outside NASA. “It seems to me that most of the scientific community woud prefer some form of a return mission to the Moon. Why wouldn’t we follow their advice?” Smith asked Holdren.
“I think the situation has changed in a number of important respects since the National Research Council report which you quote,” Holdren responded. What’s changed, he said, is that NASA has developed “an extraordinarily ingenious and cost-effective new approach to that mission” by bringing an asteroid close to Earth. “Now we’re seeing a lot of enthusiasm for it.”
Smith wasn’t convinced, though, claiming that the mission hadn’t appeared in previous studies by the scientific community (although studies like the planetary science decadal reports typically don’t examine human missions, which are funded outside of NASA’s science program.) “It is a new mission, maybe we need to wait and see how it is received by the scientific community,” he said. “It just seems to me to be a little bit of an afterthought.”
Smith’s skepticism about NASA’s current direction in human spaceflight carried over to an op-ed he wrote in Thursday’s issue of the Houston Chronicle. “[O]ther nations are again accelerating investments in space, while our own human space program is without a clear mission,” he argued. “If China lands a man on Mars before the U.S., it would be devastating to our standing in the global community.” (China has no announced plans for a human Mars mission, and only vague plans at best for human missions to the Moon some time in the 2020s.)
Smith said, though, that NASA will not “defy budget gravity and somehow get an increase when everyone else is getting cut” and, therefore, needs to spend its existing budget more effectively. “President Obama should work with Congress to provide a vision for the agency. In order to succeed, NASA needs continuity of vision and consistency in its budget.”