Frugal Times Demand a Frugal Space Agency

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The following is taken from remarks prepared for a March 28 U.S. Senate oversight and budgetary hearing on NASA.

As chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee, I have three priorities for NASA. First is to implement a balanced space program. How will NASA move forward with the program Congress authorized and funded? Second is to be an economic engine. How is NASA putting America to work out-innovating, out-educating and out-building? Third is oversight and accountability. How is NASA ensuring our tax dollars are spent wisely?

I want to make sure that NASA has what it needs to carry out its mission, explore the universe, understand and protect our planet, and create new technologies that lead to new breakthroughs creating jobs of the future.

President Barack Obama’s 2013 budget request for NASA is $17.7 billion, which is $89 million below 2012. In the last three years, NASA has been cut by $1 billion. Within the request, NASA outlines three top priorities: funding the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion capsule; supporting the international space station (ISS), including commercial flights for cargo and astronauts; and building the James Webb Space Telescope.

NASA will be asked to accomplish those priorities with less, far less, than envisioned in the last NASA Authorization Act. In supporting those three priorities, NASA has made some tough choices. Science is cut $179 million below 2012, funding for SLS and Orion is reduced below 2012, and NASA Education funding is cut $38 million, or 28 percent.

Additionally, if we don’t avoid a sequester, NASA will be cut by another 8 percent across the board. We want to hear from Administrator Charles Bolden on how a cut like that would impact NASA’s ability to carry out its mission.

The commerce, justice, science subcommittee has always worked to preserve a balanced space program with science, aeronautics and sustainable human flight. For science, this budget will keep NASA’s near-term launches on track. This is good news. This supports important science missions to explore our solar system and the universe, understand the sun, and observe and protect our planet.

But I am troubled that the budget does not invest adequately in future missions — the next-highest science priorities identified by the National Academies’ decadal surveys. We must keep making progress on the academies’ recommendations, now and in the future.

This year, we hope to see both Space Exploration Technologies (Space X) and Orbital Sciences launch cargo to the international space station, results of a partnership between NASA and the private sector. Once Orbital starts launching out of Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia, there will be 400 new high-tech jobs on the Eastern Shore. SpaceX has created 1,500 jobs since it became part of the commercial cargo program in 2006.

Nationwide, aerospace industries create a $50 billion trade surplus for the U.S., and NASA should be a partner with them. Our new commercial space rockets can launch a new industry in places like Wallops Island. NASA-developed capabilities, like the satellite servicing group at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., have the potential to create jobs for today and jobs for tomorrow — innovation jobs that can’t be outsourced. That’s why we have a strong coalition of space senators, because we believe in NASA’s ability to bring out the best of America.

But to keep that support, NASA has got to be more frugal. Last year, NASA achieved a clean financial audit for the first time since 2002. We are counting on NASA to remain vigilant on oversight and accountability.

I appreciate NASA’s efforts to re-evaluate the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST). Now NASA must keep to the plan. The Government Accountability Office’s most recent assessment of NASA’s large projects found NASA’s large programs — other than JWST — average $79 million or 15 percent over budget and eight months behind schedule.

NASA has to do better. More than 80 percent of NASA’s funding is awarded by contract. That’s more than $14 billion of NASA’s 2013 request. NASA’s inspector general has identified project and contract management as top challenges for the agency. This committee will be a watchdog and we expect NASA to implement the inspector general’s recommendations.

Frugal times demand a frugal space agency. Our space programs must be affordable, balanced and wisely managed to gain support in frugal times. But make no mistake: NASA’s mission is worth our passion.

 

U.S. Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.) is chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee that oversees NASA spending.