Senate committee seeks stability for NASA programs in next administration

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SAN DIEGO — In the first hearing about NASA that it held in more than a year, members of the Senate’s space subcommittee argued that the next administration should avoid making radical changes to NASA’s human spaceflight programs.

Both members and witnesses at the July 13 hearing of the space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee argued that NASA was making good progress implementing key elements of the human space exploration program developed in the aftermath of the 2010 decision by the Obama Administration to cancel the Constellation program.

“Human space exploration and innovation are integral to the mission of NASA,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), chairman of the subcommittee, in his opening statement. “That’s why this subcommittee will work to provide NASA with the security and stability that is necessary as the agency transitions from one administration to the next.”

Cruz indicated he was particularly concerned about the Space Launch System heavy-lift vehicle and Orion crew spacecraft, the two largest elements of NASA’s human spaceflight plans. “What are the lessons we can learn from the cancellation of the Constellation program and what steps should Congress take to ensure that the Space Launch System and Orion don’t face the same fate in the years to come?” he asked later in the hearing.

“We’re in a very different posture with the current programs,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations and one of five witnesses at the hearing. He argued SLS and Orion are further along than Constellation was eight years ago. “We’re essentially roughly two years away from launch of the next generation of launch systems that allows us to go to deep space.”

“And if a subsequent administration were to cancel SLS or Orion as we did with the Constellation system, what would the consequences of that be?” Cruz asked.

Gerstenmaier said that NASA has “essentially recovered” from the end of Constellation. Cancelling the current programs, he warned, “would essentially put us back in that start-all-over-again posture to begin again with all the negative consequences that you’ve described,” including effects on NASA and industry workforce. “I don’t think we should go through that again if we can avoid it.”

Other witnesses said a future decision to cancel SLS in particular could have international ramifications. “If we don’t develop heavy lift, I assure you the Chinese will,” said Mike Gold, vice president of Washington operations for Space Systems Loral. “If we do not develop this critical capacity, we will be behind China, who is making, frankly, all of the right decisions.”

Gold and other witnesses also emphasized the importance of encouraging commercial space activities in low Earth orbit, allowing NASA to transition from operations of the International Space Station in the 2020s to missions in cislunar space and, eventually, to Mars.

Gold noted that the ISS, currently expected to operate through 2024, will not be replaced by another NASA-developed space station. “The future of LEO remains squarely on the shoulders of the private sector, which presents both an extraordinary challenge and an equally extraordinary opportunity,” he said. Gold suggested manufacturing communications satellites in space could be a large future market for commercial space activities “and be the fuel for a new era in LEO human spaceflight.”

However, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), ranking member of the full committee, suggested NASA should operate the ISS beyond 2024 if at all possible. “There’s a lot more that we can do on that platform. It ought to be extended,” he said. “I will predict that shortly, in the next few years if not immediately, you’ll see an extension even on out to the end of the decade.”

The hearing, the first by the space subcommittee devoted to NASA since a budget hearing in March 2015, offered little debate or controversy. Even NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), the agency’s plan to bring a boulder form an asteroid to cislunar space that has been extensively criticized elsewhere in Congress, got a warm reception at the hearing. “I don’t know why that has gotten some political commentary in it,” Nelson said of ARM.

The threats to SLS, Orion, ARM and other NASA programs posed by the next administration remain uncertain. The two major party candidates running for president, Democrat Hillary Clinton and Republican Donald Trump, have offered few, if any, details about their space policy positions ahead of the November general election.

It’s also unclear what steps the committee will take to address their concerns about a transition. Sen. Gary Peters (D-Mich.), ranking member of the subcommittee, suggested a NASA authorization bill would be one solution. “I look forward to working with my colleagues to reauthorize NASA and provide the agency with the stability and consistency of purpose that is needed to achieve the ambitious goals that we have set for our space program,” he said.

The Senate, though, has not passed an authorization bill for NASA since 2010, although several such bills have either been approved by the House Science Committee or passed by the full House in recent years. The Senate has not taken action on those House bills, and is scheduled to recess July 14 for the political party conventions and its traditional August break, not reconvening until Sept. 6.