U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) registered her opposition April 3 to a proposal circulating on Capitol Hill to keep the space shuttle flying until its successors, the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and Ares 1 rocket, are ready to enter service.


Mikulski, who chairs
the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee, said she would prefer instead to see NASA get the additional money it would need to field Orion and Ares in late 2013, the earliest the agency thinks it could get the job done with additional money.

NASA’s budget, however, only provides enough money to assure delivery of Orion and Ares by March 2015. Fielding it some 15 to 16 months sooner still is possible technically , but would require giving the program a $2 billion cash infusion spread over a
couple of years, NASA Administrator Mike Griffin told Mikulski during an April 3 hearing on the space agency’s 2009 budget request.


Mikulski told Griffin she would be happy to see the now nearly five-year projected gap between the shuttle’s last scheduled flight in 2010 and the first flight of Orion reduced to a more manageable three years.


“I would not support the extension of the shuttle to 2015,” she said, vowing to work with colleagues in both parties “to see if we can’t find the funds to accelerate closing the gap.”


Mikulski also announced during the hearing that she again would seek an additional $1 billion for NASA to help pay back what the agency spent to return to flight after the 2003 space shuttle Columbia accident. Mikulski has been pushing for the extra money since 2006. Last year, she and several colleagues – including Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York – succeeded in getting the supplemental funds through the Senate only to see the proposal die during 11th hour budget negotiations with the House.


Mikulski did not say when she would introduce this year’s $1 billion NASA supplemental, but she did say it was her intention to complete the commerce, justice, science spending bill before the May 27 Memorial Day holiday in the United States.


In contrast to the day and a half of grilling Griffin got from the House Appropriations commerce, justice, and science subcommittee in early March, Mikulski – the only senator at the hearing – went easy on the NASA chief.


When she criticized NASA’s budget request, she made clear that her frustration was with the White House and Griffin’s predecessors, whom she accused of setting NASA on a course back to the Moon and on to Mars without bothering to request the funding the agency needs to make it happen.


“We went to the space station at the request of President Bush 1 and we’ve had difficulty paying for it since … now this one gave us a Mars mission without the wad,” she said. “So we’re cranky. We’re not cranky with you. But we’re cranky because we feel like we’ve been set up.”


Overall, Mikulski said she was dissatisfied with the White House’s $17.6 billion request for NASA, a 1.8 percent increase that she said would leave the agency’s program lagging behind inflation and do nothing to
narrow the looming
gap in NASA’s autonomous ability to get astronauts into space.


She also made clear she was not happy with the White House holding NASA science spending essentially flat for the next five years, while cutting aeronautics research beyond current levels. And while she was glad to see the White House requesting funds to start five new Earth science missions in the years ahead, she said that would not make much of a dent in the list of 17 missions the National Academy of Sciences recommended NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration launch by 2020.


“I am going to make sure we put the right resources in the right places in the checkbook to make sure that America’s space program remains No. 1 in the world,” she said.


Returning to the gap, Mikulski said she supports
funding of NASA’s Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program. The agency’s 2009 budget request seeks
$107 million
to fund Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) and Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Science’s rival efforts to demonstrate new vehicles capable of delivering supplies to the international space station.


Mikulski said there was “a lot floating around” on Capitol Hill about “beefing up COTS” to accelerate the demonstration of crewed flights as a way to narrow the gap. She asked Griffin if that was a good idea.


Griffin said it was not.


“Of the two, the most important COTS capability to me is cargo. I must be honest about that,” Griffin said.


Griffin said that when the shuttle retires in 2010, the United States not only loses it ability to ferry astronauts to and from the space station, it also loses its ability to carry vital cargo back and forth, one of its key ongoing commitments to the 16-nation program.

While Russia readily can supply the three-person Soyuz capsules NASA will need to buy to honor U.S. crew transportation commitments, Russia cannot come anywhere close to supplying enough Progress cargo ships to make up for the loss of the shuttle. Griffin said paying Europe and Japan to launch more cargo to the station than they are obligated to launch is not an attractive option either, because neither has scaled their spacecraft assembly lines to pick up the slack in NASA’s launch capabilities after the shuttle fleet is retired.

NASA’s best bet, he said, is that a U.S. commercial firm, be it SpaceX, Orbital or someone else, will come through with a cargo delivery capability around the time shuttle retires.


Mikulski, for her part, appeared to agree with Griffin about NASA’s space station challenges and the way to deal with them.


“There is no magic motion to close the gap,” she said. “The only prudent fiscal way to go is accelerate Ares and Orion by two years and at the same time keep COTS on track so we have the cargo capability.”


Griffin, meanwhile, did not sugarcoat his feelings about the United States depending on Russia for crew transport to the station. He said he did not like it. But he also said NASA has no alternative but to continue relying on Soyuz for meeting U.S. crew rotation obligations until Orion or a commercial alternative shows that it can safely launch astronauts and remain at the station for at least six months to provide their return to Earth in an emergency.


NASA currently is paying Russia $780 million to provide Soyuz and Progress flights to the space station through 2011. Griffin told Mikulski that NASA expects to continue to need the Soyuz services through at least 2012 and possibly as late as 2016.


NASA is barred by law from buying space station-related goods and services from Russia until and unless the president certifies to Congress that Russia is no longer helping Iran acquire missiles and other advanced weapons. Congress in 2005 granted NASA a temporary waiver from that prohibition, which is part of the Iran-North Korea-Syria Nonproliferation Act. But that waiver expires at the end of 2011.


Griffin said the White House soon would be sending Congress a legislative proposal for extending NASA’s exemption. Mikulski said she would work with her colleagues on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to see that it gets passed in time to allow NASA to enter negotiations with Russia later this fall.

Comments: bberger@space.com