Senate hearing emphasizes uncertainty

The Senate Commerce Committee's space subcommittee held a hearing Tuesday on "Realizing NASA's Potential: Programmatic Challenges in the 21st Century", featuring as witnesses six of the agency's associate administrators, from space operations and exploration to education and mission support. The hearing didn't result in any major revelations about the agency's plans, but did seem to underscore a theme of uncertainty, about both how the agency will implement the directives of the authorization act and how it will be funded in 2011 and beyond. A major focus, not surprisingly, is the agency's plans for developing a heavy-lift vehicle as authorized in last year's act. Senators, including subcommittee chairman Bill Nelson (D-FL) and full committee ranking member Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), made it clear they were not satisfied with the report NASA delivered in January outlining their initial plans for development of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Multi Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) for the ISS. They pressed agency officials for more details about those efforts, and were told that an updated study on development of the SLS and MPCV, including their estimated schedule given projected funding, would be completed by late spring or early summer. (Nelson went so far as to ask Doug Cooke, the associate administrator for exploration, to "step on some toes" at OMB and OSTP if necessary to expedite their approval of those studies, since Cooke will be retiring later this year and thus didn't have anything to lose.) Complicating matters is the current budget environment, with another three-week continuing resolution (CR) set to be enacted later this week. That CR keeps in place language that keeps NASA from terminating Constellation programs. Pressed on how much money NASA has "wasted", in the words of Sen. Nelson, on Constellation programs as a result of that provision, Cooke would only say a "small amount" had been wasted, without giving a specific amount, saying that work was being phased on existing contracts so that it can be used to support SLS and MPCV work. Still, he said, "Certainly we would be happy and less constrained without the restrictions." Hutchison did indicate that the continuing series of CRs may finally be reaching its end. "I believe that the sentiment on the Hill now is that this would be the last temporary continuing resolution that we will pass," she said, "and that we must go to the long-term continuing resolution that takes us through the end of the fiscal year." The new CR would extend funding to April 8, giving Congress just over three weeks to figure out what the final FY11 funding levels should be. Senators also expressed concerns that the FY12 budget request does not match up with the authorization act levels, particularly for the SLS and MPCV; some asked, given the January report that indicated that fielding the SLS by the end of 2016 is not feasible at authorized spending levels, why the administration would then go and request less money for those programs, while requesting additional funding for commercial crew. "I do hope that you can help us see that perhaps we're mistaken, that perhaps you are not going back to just focusing on the commercial side and leaving our basic NASA missions without the priority that Congress has put on the agency," Hutchison said in her opening statement. "You're conflicted," Nelson told the witnesses at one point. "You've got to defend the president's request and yet and there's a law, and it's called the NASA authorization law, and the two are in conflict." Nelson then went on to predict: "The president's budget is not going to be enacted." He didn't specify how Congress would change that request, but then, it's tough to think much about NASA's FY12 budget when the agency still doesn't have a final FY11 request.

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