More questions about NASA priorities

For the second day in a row, NASA administrator Charles Bolden made the trip to Capitol Hill to discuss the agency's FY2012 budget request, this time to members of the Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee. During the lengthy hearing (nearly three and a half hours, without breaks) members again quizzed Bolden on the agency's priorities in an era when the agency's fiscal resources may be mismatched to its plans. "Last year at this time we were in the early stages of what turned out to be a very lengthy, contentious debate about the future direction of NASA's human spaceflight program," subcommittee chairman Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) said in his opening statement. The passage of the NASA authorization act last year was supposed to end that debate, but now, he said, the question is whether NASA can implement the act. "No amount of authorizing language can hold NASA to a particular goal or commitment if that language isn't backed up by the budget." He added that the funding levels in the FY12 budget for the Space Launch System (SLS) and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) "virtually guarantee that NASA won't have core launch and crew capabilities in place by 2016," the deadline in the authorization act. Bolden repeated previous statements that NASA was funding all the programs included in the authorization act, but that the agency had to make "some difficult choices" because of the current fiscal environment. "Reductions were necessary in some areas so that we can invest in the future while living within our means." He reiterated this during questioning by Wolf, saying that when the agency's FY11 budget proposal was submitted just 13 months ago "the world was different, and our fiscal situation was really different." Bolden said NASA put its highest priority on spending on safely flying out the shuttle, followed by providing safe access to the ISS over the next decade through commercial cargo and crew programs. "If we lose the International Space Station, we're dead in the water" in therms of future human space exploration plans, he said later in the hearing. Nonetheless, committee members sought to find ways to adjust those choices in spending priorities. Several asked about potential duplication of Earth sciences work between NASA other agencies, such as NOAA and USGS; Bolden said that there was no evidence of such duplication, citing a October 2009 GAO report that found no evidence of duplication of NASA programs with those of other agencies. Later, asked about any excess or underutilized properties that NASA could sell to raise money, Bolden said that a facilities master plan is being updated to identify such properties. Committee members did promise some relief in one area, though: the 2010 appropriations language that prevents NASA from terminating any element of Constellation, even those not aligned with the new direction given in the authorization act. "One thing I hope we can do is to, in one of the short-term CRs we're dealing with, is get you some immediate clarification on that," Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) said. Bolden tried to walk a fine line in regards to current spending tied to Constellation programs, as members of Congress cited a report from NASA's Inspector General (IG) earlier this year warning of wasted spending. "I disagree that we are wasting money," he said, saying that they have tried to focus spending on those programs on efforts that could be applicable to future efforts, but made it clear he wants the language removed. "I do agree with the IG that [with] the soon-as-possible relief from the restriction of terminating the Constellation programs, the better off we'd be." Wolf also said he would work to preserve a provision in the HR 1 spending bill for FY11 the House passed last month that would prevent NASA and OSTP from spending any money on cooperation with China. Later in the hearing Wolf spoke for several minutes about Chinese human rights abuses, and went so far as to predict that the Chinese government would fall in a democratic uprising like those taking place in the Middle East. "I will fight to the death for this language," he said. Late in the hearing, Culberson asked about the planetary sciences Decadal Survey, scheduled for release late Monday, and whether NASA had funding to support top missions identified in the survey. He was making a push in particular for a Europa Orbiter mission, a mission identified in the last survey and, he believes, will be a top priority in the new survey. Bolden said they agency will look at the missions identified in the survey and see how they match up with projected funding. (A Space News article published after the hearing, though, suggests funding for a Europa mission will be hard to come by given current budget projections.) One minor bit of news that Bolden made at the hearing regarded the disposition of the shuttle orbiters once the fleet is retired. Asked about this by Rep. Norm Dicks (D-WA), the ranking member of the full committee, Bolden said NASA was planning to make an announcement on April 12, the 30th anniversary of the launch of STS-1. (Dicks also used his question to play up the bid by Seattle's Museum of Flight; another subcommittee member, Rep. Steve Austria (R-OH), made a pitch for the Museum of the Air Force in Dayton.)

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