Provision Damaging to NASA Self-Management

During a June 18 debate on the Commerce, Justice, Science and Related Agencies 2010 Appropriations bill (H.R. 2847), there was a strong focus on the drastic cut to NASA’s exploration account, and rightfully so. But an equally damaging provision in the bill in my mind is emblematic of the unique challenges facing NASA both in how it currently operates, as well as how it plans for the missions to come.

As passed by the House, H.R. 2847 recommended that NASA’s research and development account be converted from two years to one year in duration. NASA’s ability to obligate funds over a two year period has allowed the agency to be flexible in shifting and refocusing resources over a period of time to meet the development needs that high-risk research and development projects warrant. Technical and schedule delays and staffing can be addressed more smoothly.

The motivation behind this change is unclear. NASA is doing a good job managing its accounts. Through NASA’s focus on improving financial performance, the agency obligated 98 percent of 2008 funds in their first year of availability, and expects to do the same in 2009. The very first hearing of this Congress held by the House Science and Technology space and aeronautics subcommittee was a review of cost management issues in NASA’s acquisitions and programs. While the focus of the hearing looked at managing risk, the issue of two-year versus one-year funding was not cited as a source of concern.

Last week, during our space and aeronautics subcommittee hearing on external perspectives on the 2010 budget on NASA, there was unanimity on the panel (the only issue that this occurred on, by the way) that this idea was a bad one.

We must make sure this provision does not remain in the final legislation.

I’m concerned about the NASA work force and the external pressures they are facing. These workers, both civil servants and contractors, labor in highly technical positions that require constant diligence and technical rigor. NASA faces challenges including a looming shuttle retirement date, doubts from within and outside the agency regarding the future of human spaceflight, and a review panel convened that will have an enormous impact on the future of the program, to name a few. Now an unnecessary and unwise budgetary restriction has been placed on the agency by the Congress, which must have workers wondering just what other impediments could be put in their way to do their jobs. Constraining NASA’s use of funds to just one year will cause significant disruption and possible layoffs in the contractor work force at the end of the fiscal year.

Our verbal assurances are not enough to comfort an unsettled work force, particularly during these tough economic times. NASA cannot operate effectively, smartly, and above all else safely with one hand tied behind its back. It is time we realized that after all, this is rocket science.

Rep. Pete Olson (R-Texas)

Ranking Member, House Science and Technology space and aeronautics subcommittee