Lightfoot House budget hearing
NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot testifies at a House Science Committee hearing on NASA's fiscal year 2019 budget proposal March 7. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

WASHINGTON — Members of the House space subcommittee raised concerns about elements of NASA’s fiscal year 2019 budget proposal during a March 7 hearing, from the cancellation of a space telescope to restructuring of the agency’s technology programs.

At the hearing by the space subcommittee of the House Science Committee, NASA Acting Administrator Robert Lightfoot defended the budget proposal released last month, arguing that it supports human spaceflight efforts as well as science and aeronautics.

“I think we still have a very balanced budget when you look across the multi-mission opportunities in science and aeronautics and technology, along with the exploration activity,” Lightfoot said. “What we’re really trying to do here is focus on a long-term plan with our eye on Mars, ultimately.”

Lightfoot’s comment came in response to a question from ranking member Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), who thought the budget proposal focused too much on human exploration efforts. “There are some areas of concern of the overweight focus just on exploration,” he said. “None of us is going to argue that exploration is not important, but we also want to make sure we don’t lose sight of the space science, the space technology, the aeronautics and education.”

A particular area of concern for Bera was the plan in the budget proposal to cancel the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, or WFIRST, the next flagship astrophysics missions at NASA after the James Webb Space Telescope. WFIRST, he noted, was the top priority large mission in the 2010 astrophysics decadal survey, where astronomers prioritized mission concepts for the next decade.

“The decadal survey has served us well, and not looking at this scientific-based prioritization and moving away from that can certainty set a dangerous precedent,” Bera said.

Lightfoot tried to downplay the effects of the proposed cancellation on astrophysics research. Asked later in the hearing by Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) about the consequences of not flying WFIRST, Lightfoot suggested other missions, including the Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) scheduled to launch in April, could fill in.

“We’re counting on TESS and James Webb to fill the astrophysics needs for quite a bit of time,” he said, but acknowledged there would be a “gap” in data. “To the astrophysics community, that’s a challenge from a scientific perspective.”

Others questioned plans to reorganize NASA’s management of space technology efforts, which would effectively fold the Space Technology Mission Directorate into the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, focusing more technology research on exploration needs.

Details of how that transition will take shape are still being developed in the agency, Lightfoot said. “What we’re really trying to do is make sure our technologies that we’re working on are truly aligned with the things we’re trying to do at the moon and ultimately at Mars,” he said.

Some members, though, worried this reorganization would take resources away from space technology activities not associated with exploration, or cut technology funding in general to support operations. Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) entered into the record a letter from Bobby Braun, dean of the College of Engineering and Applied Science at the University of Colorado and a former NASA chief technologist, critical of the proposed reorganization.

Braun, in the letter, called the reorganization “among the most devastating long-term aspects proposed” in the budget request. “Past history has shown that large development programs and technology development activities cannot and should not exist together, as a small hiccup in the development programs eats the budget of the basic research and technology advancement needed to accomplish more in space.”

Lightfoot defended the change, even while acknowledging that the new exploration research and technology program will focus on “long poles” for human missions to Mars. “I think we still have a very balanced portfolio going forward.”

Human spaceflight issues

Members also asked about the initiative in the budget proposal to end NASA funding of the International Space Station in 2025 while developing commercial capabilities in low Earth orbit. The lack of details about those plans, though, bothered some.

“I remain open to new ideas relative to future operations, but obviously we need a detailed and realistic, sustainable plan for any ISS transition in the future,” said Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), chairman of the subcommittee. “NASA will need to do a better job articulating this plan as we move forward.”

Babin also reminded Lightfoot that NASA had yet to deliver both the ISS transition plan and an exploration roadmap required by last year’s NASA authorization bill. Those documents were supposed to be delivered to Congress last December. Lightfoot later said that the exploration roadmap should be delivered by the end of the month.

Other members noted the absence of funding in the budget proposal for a second mobile launch platform for the Space Launch System. NASA officials said they were considering seeking funding for it last year as a means of closing the gap between the first and second SLS missions caused by required modifications to the existing platform to accommodate the larger version of SLS that will be used on the second and subsequent missions.

“We took a hard look at that,” Lightfoot said. A second platform, he said, could move up the date of the first crewed Orion mission from 2023 to 2022, but that it’s a “pretty expensive” project. “We had the discussion, we had the debate, and the answer came back we should stick with the plan that we’ve got.”

Babin returned to the issue later in the hearing, noting that Kennedy Space Center Director Bob Cabana had talked about it with him while in Florida for last month’s meeting of the National Space Council. “It sure sounded like it would absolutely be a great thing if we could get a second one,” he said.

Lightfoot said that part of the expense of a second launch platform involved also purchasing and human rating a second Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage and using it with the existing mobile launch platform for a second SLS mission while the new mobile launcher, for the Block 1B versions of SLS, is built. That would allow for a crewed launch sooner than modifying the platform to accommodate the larger SLS.

Lightfoot also confirmed that NASA is studying flying astronauts on commercial crew test flights as a contingency measure should Boeing and SpaceX experience further delays in the development of their vehicles. Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for human exploration and operations, said last month that option was being considered since additional Soyuz spacecraft will not be available after the fall of 2019.

“We are looking at several options” for maintaining access to the ISS, Lightfoot said, but didn’t disclose the other options beyond flying crews on test flights. “We’re still confident that our commercial providers are going to provide us the capability we need, and we’re just looking at contingencies in case.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...