Congress Questions Balance of NASA’s Proposed Budget

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COLORADO SPRINGS, Colo. — NASA Administrator Charles Bolden faced strong criticism of his proposed 2016 budget during a pair of congressional hearings in Washington April 16, including questions about the future of the agency’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) program.

At a hearing of the House Science space subcommittee on the morning of April 16, Bolden was forced to defend decisions in the agency’s budget request to increase funding for commercial crew, Earth science and space technology, while decreasing funding for the Space Launch System and Orion programs compared to 2015.

“The president’s request regrettably changes agreed-upon national priorities,” said House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who also criticized the administration for seeking a $519 million increase in NASA’s budget without offering spending offsets elsewhere. “It is hard for Congress to consider this a serious proposal when it does not comply with the law and is not grounded in reality.”

Both Republican and Democratic members criticized a reduction of more than $400 million in SLS and Orion in the proposal compared to the fiscal year 2015 appropriations bill. “The administration proposes one thing, and Congress comes and puts it back in,” said Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), ranking member of the space subcommittee. “What’s the real number for SLS and Orion?”

Exploration Mission 1
“We did not go through the formal process when we came up with a date of 2017,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said, defending the slip in the EM-1 (above) launch. Credit: NASA video capture

Bolden responded that the administration’s request for SLS and Orion supported a first flight, designated Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1), some time in 2018, a date that he said cannot be accelerated with additional funding. “If you gave me more money today, and told me to spend it on SLS, that’s not going to change the date of availability for SLS for EM-1,” he said.

Bolden defended the slip in the EM-1 launch from 2017 to 2018, which some members argued was because of inadequate funding. “We did not go through the formal process when we came up with a date of 2017,” he said. “I do not consider it to be a delay.”

Republican members questioned Bolden about an increase of about $175 million in Earth sciences compared to 2015. At one point, subcommittee Vice Chairman Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.) asked Bolden if he would accept transferring the money spent on Earth sciences to other NASA programs, and letting another agency take over, and pay for, that research.

Bolden declined the offer. “NASA, since its inception, has had the responsibility for exploration and helping us understand it better, and also taking care of this planet,” he said.

During the hearing, members also criticized NASA’s ARM plans. “The ARM mission still hasn’t garnered any support in academic, scientific, exploration, or international communities,” said subcommittee chairman Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.). “It is tough to see how this proposal gains traction in the remaining months of the president’s term.”

Palazzo brought up a finding by the NASA Advisory Council at its April 10 meeting in Washington that suggested NASA abandon ARM and instead use one of its key technologies, solar-electric propulsion, to send a robotic spacecraft on a round-trip mission to Mars.

Charles Bolden NASA
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. Credit: NASA/Joel Kowsky

“ARM is a critical component of getting humans to Mars,” Bolden responded, saying that he was not required to accept the conclusions from the council. “They are an advisory committee.”

The nearly two-hour hearing featured some contentious exchanges between Bolden and members, who sometimes expressed frustration with the answers he provided. “I think we have heard excellent questions today from both sides of the podium,” Smith said. “I still think we are searching for more direct answers to a lot of those questions.”

Bolden also faced questions about the proposed NASA budget at a less heated hearing later the same day by the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice and science subcommittee.

“Such a significant increase should represent balanced funding for NASA’s priorities,” said subcommittee Chairman Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) of the overall budget increase. “Instead, there’s a sizable growth in programs like commercial crew and space technology, while other programs, like science missions and exploration systems development, have significant reductions.”

While Shelby questioned cuts in SLS and Orion, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), ranking member of both the subcommittee and the full appropriations committee, focused on issues affecting NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “They’ve got a full plate,” she said of the Maryland-based center, “and you’ve cut them by $300 million.”

Bolden said that the share of NASA funding that goes to programs at Goddard would likely be $2.6 billion in 2016, the same in 2015, as Earth sciences initiatives start. Bolden later offered to meet with Mikulski about a satellite-servicing program at Goddard whose funding would be cut in half, to $65 million, in the 2016 proposal.

While Bolden and Mikulski debated NASA funding priorities, Bolden used the hearing to praise the senator, who is not running for re-election in 2016. “It is safe to say that all of us at NASA and across the space community were saddened at your recent announcement that this will be your last Congress,” he said. “You’ve been a champion for America’s space program.”