Members of the House Science and Technology Committee criticized as inadequate the White House’s budget request for NASA during a Feb. 13 hearing in which the agency’s administrator, Mike Griffin, acknowledged cost growth on some efforts and agreed – if only in principle – to a space shuttle mission that is not currently in the manifest.
Committee Chairman Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) and his colleagues
said they were disappointed that the $17.6 billion budget request for NASA does not include
additional funding for the agency’s
to narrow the gap between the space shuttle’s planned 2010 retirement and the promised March 2015 debut of Orion and its Ares 1 launcher
. Constellation encompasses the hardware NASA will need to replace the space shuttle – including Orion and Ares 1 – and return astronauts to the Moon by 2020.
“The administration has chosen not to request any additional funding for the Constellation Program
in this budget request despite congressional encouragement from both sides of the aisle to do so,” said Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo
.), chairman of the House Science and Technology
space and aeronautics subcommittee. “That’s not a great message to send to NASA and the contractor teams that are working so hard to implement the president’s initiative. Nor does it send a good signal to the next president, whoever it might be, that the exploration initiative is a priority worth continuing.”
Rep. Tom Feeney of Florida, the top Republican on
the space and aeronautics subcommittee
, said the White House and Congress share the blame for not adequately funding NASA since directing the agency to shoot for the Moon without shortchanging science and aeronautics. Feeney also said he was concerned that official Washington appears to be
asking NASA to do too much with too little, something many believe contributed to the 2003 Space Shuttle Columbia disaster.
NASA’s plan to start several new space and Earth science missions in the years ahead by shifting money around within a flat science budget as “a musical chairs approach” to budgeting that threatens to leave the agency even more cash-strapped in future years.
Gordon also complained that the budget
request contains no money for replacing the Deep Space Network even though NASA has said
the aging system of ground antennas is not up to supporting all the space missions planned for the coming decade.
Between multiple interruptions for a series of votes happening on the House floor, committee members questioned Griffin about several matters they hinted they intend to address as they begin drafting a NASA re-authorization bill this year.
Rep. Nick Lampson (D-Texas) was very clear that he would like to see NASA add a space shuttle flight to its 2010 manifest in order to launch the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), a $1.5 billion science payload NASA had promised its international partners it would deliver to the space station. But that was before the Columbia accident and Griffin said he has neither the budget nor the authority to add an AMS mission to the shuttle manifest. However, Griffin said he has no problem launching AMS aboard the shuttle if that is what Congress ultimately tells the agency
“I do not have that authority,” Griffin said. “If I had that authority I would have added the shuttle flight and we would not be having this discussion.”
Griffin said Congress would need to act before the end of the year; otherwise it will
be too late to add another flight to the sun-setting program.
Meanwhile, Griffin also disclosed during the hearing that the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL) – a $1 billion lander being prepared for a 2009 launch – is having budget problems driven in part by a recent technical setback during development.
“MSL is having heat shield problems,” Griffin said, explaining
NASA’s assumption that the super-lightweight ablative materials used
shuttle external tank would work on
the Mars lander “did not survive actual tests. So we are going to a material called PICA
, which is a stronger ablater. That is going to cost several tens of millions of dollars.”
NASA spokesman Dwayne Brown told Space News after the hearing that
extensive testing last spring and summer showed that the external tank
would not survive the MSL’s entry into
the martian atmosphere
despite working well on the Mars Pathfinder and more recent Mars Exploration Rover
Brown said NASA decided last August to switch to a material called Phenolic Impregnated Carbon Ablator, or PICA for short, which was used on the re-entry capsule of NASA’s Stardust comet sample collection mission.
Griffin also told lawmakers that Glory, a greenhouse gas-measuring mission rescued from the brink of cancellation in 2005, has overrun its budget by over 30 percent and will need specific authorization from Congress within the next 18 months in order to continue toward its planned 2009 launch. He did not explain what is causing the overrun, but NASA’s detailed budget book says problems with the spacecraft’s main instrument – an Aerosol Polarimetry Sensor being built by El Segundo, Calif.-based Raytheon Space and Airborne Systems – primarily are to blame.