Rep. Wolf Eyes Commercial Crew Budget for Mars Relief

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WASHINGTON — The chairman of the U.S. House Appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA appealed to the agency to reduce the scope of its Commercial Crew Program and direct resulting savings into robotic Mars exploration, which is in line for deep cuts.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.) asked NASA Administrator Charles Bolden during a March 21 hearing on the agency’s 2013 budget the same question he asked of the White House’s chief science adviser last month: Would NASA’s partnership with commercial companies to develop astronaut transports be cheaper if the companies competing for NASA funds combined their efforts into a single “all for one and one for all” project?

“At least give them an opportunity to express whether or not they could,” Wolf urged Bolden during the hearing. “Any savings that we could get would also allow us to continue the Mars program.”

Wolf urged NASA to have that conversation sooner rather than later. “There will be a point where people have made so many investments in so many different processes that can’t be connected and therefore it’s too late,” Wolf said. “At least give them an opportunity to express whether or not they could” cooperate.

NASA’s 2013 budget request, rolled out in mid-February,  imposes sharp cuts on Mars exploration and other planetary science programs to fund other agency priorities, include a doubling of the Commercial Crew Program’s budget.

With Mars exploration targeted for a 40 percent cut in the president’s budget, NASA says it can no longer afford to participate in a planned series of Mars missions with the European Space Agency meant to set the stage for collecting samples from the red planet and returning them to Earth. Mars sample return was identified as the U.S. planetary science community’s top priority in last year’s decadal survey.

Bolden said during the hearing that the Mars program was targeted for budget cuts because “when we took a look at the portfolio, the area that seemed to be in the best shape was our Mars exploration.”

That explanation did not sit well with members of the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee.

“That’s an answer that says, ‘In order to make budget cuts, we savage the most successful program we have,’” said Rep. Adam Schiff, the California Democrat whose Pasadena-area district includes the Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

“I think cannibalizing the Mars program … is a major step backwards for NASA and the nation,” Schiff said. “I think the budget proposal is a disaster for our leadership in space.”

“I grieve for my country, I grieve for NASA,” said Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas). “There’s no way you can say the planetary program can survive a cut of 21 percent.”

Wolf is not alone in calling for quick consolidation of the Commercial Crew Program.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), during the Senate Commerce Committee’s March 7 hearing on NASA’s budget, also asked Bolden whether the companies competing for commercial crew funds might not do better to join forces.

Although commercial crew consolidation now has been broached in both chambers of Congress, the members who have spoken out do not agree on where to direct the resulting savings.

Hutchison, whose state is home to the Johnson Space Center, wants more money for the heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion crew capsule than the nearly $3 billion NASA is seeking in its 2013 budget request. Hutchison has accused NASA of shortchanging SLS and Orion in order to fund a big increase for the Commercial Crew Program.

NASA has requested $830 million for commercial crew, more than double what Congress provided for 2012. NASA says it needs the money to ensure that at least one astronaut transportation system is ready to launch in 2017.

 

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