Sen. Mikulski Questions NASA Commercial Crew Priority

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WASHINGTON — U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the veteran lawmaker who chairs the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee, on March 28 questioned whether NASA should spend billions of dollars to help industry develop privately owned and operated astronaut taxis that might only service the international space station (ISS) for a few years.

“I happen to support the commercial endeavor for both cargo and crew. I think it’s bold, I think it’s promising, but I’m concerned that it’s behind schedule,” Mikulski told NASA Administrator Charles Bolden during an appropriations hearing on the agency’s 2013 budget request. “My concern is that now the best-case scenarios about the launch for these is 2017. We’ve extended the life of the space station to 2020. Isn’t this a hell of a lot of money for a three-year effort?”

Bolden took issue with Mikulski’s assumption that the United States and its partners would abandon the space station in 2020.

“The international partners … the European Space Agency, Japan, Canada, the U.S. and Roscosmos in Russia, have all been engaged in engineering estimates of … how long can we fly the international space station and we have all agreed that the international space station can be flown to at least 2028,” Bolden said. “Most of them are on the record saying they would like to utilize it beyond that.”

Bolden told Mikulski, who said she intends to draft the Senate’s NASA spending bill in mid- to late April, that fully funding the Commercial Crew Program is the fastest way to end the United States’ dependence on Russia for getting astronauts and cargo to the ISS and ensuring the orbital outpost lives up to its potential.

“What NASA wants to do is get a U.S. capability in place as soon as possible so that we can enhance ISS utilization and make it a true NASA laboratory,” he said.

ISS research is a big priority for Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), the subcommittee’s ranking member.

Hutchison, who led the effort to have part of the ISS designated as a U.S. national laboratory, told Bolden that NASA was asking too much money for the Commercial Crew Program and that the agency should shrink the program.

“NASA is continuing to throw money at too many companies with a hope of flying astronauts,” Hutchison said. “Members of Congress are already coalescing around NASA choosing no more than two companies … If you adhere to three or four, you’re going to go over the budget.”

NASA wants to spend $830 million annually on the Commercial Crew Program from 2013 through 2017, according to the White House budget request released in February. Proposals were due March 23 for the next phase of the program, which is meant to keep at least two competing systems on track for a crewed orbital demonstration in 2017.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.) blasted NASA’s commercial crew partners as “the future Solyndras of the space industry,” a reference to a solar panel company that went bankrupt last year after receiving a half-billion dollars in U.S. government backing

“When is this administration going to get the message that the Congress, I believe, is not willing to subsidize so-called commercial vendors at the expense of NASA’s core mission of engineering and exploration?” Shelby asked Bolden.

Shelby, a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, is a strong supporter of the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala., where the next government-owned heavy-lift rocket, the Space Launch System (SLS), is being developed.

Shelby, like Hutchison, has criticized NASA for seeking a big increase for commercial crew while slowing spending on SLS and its companion deep-space crew capsule, the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle.

Hutchison, among the most vocal supporters of SLS and Orion in all of Congress, appeared tired of wrangling with Bolden over that issue.

“I’m going to ask you a question, you’re not going to answer it, and we’re going to be where we are, and we’re going to settle this one on one,” a weary Hutchison said before accusing NASA of willfully putting SLS and Orion on a path to failure.

“When you thoroughly studied Orion and SLS, you studied it in NASA, then you studied it outside of NASA,” Hutchison said, referring to an independent cost analysis NASA commissioned from Booz Allen Hamilton. Last year, NASA “finally got the report back [and it] said … the budget will be sufficient to make the goals for Orion and SLS a reality. And yet the very next year, we have you coming forward, cutting that budget … you’re going to be able to come in next year and say ‘gee, we didn’t get that funding that was the basis of that study, so we probably can’t do Orion and SLS.’”

Bolden replied that SLS and Orion would actually cost less to develop than anticipated “because the technologies we’re developing now will reduce the costs.” He cited lightweight, composite fuel tanks as one new technology that would trim costs.

NASA requested a combined $3 billion for SLS and Orion for 2013. About 10 percent of that would be spent on support and ground systems. Spending on vehicle development would decrease by about $325 million, compared with what Congress approved for 2012.

Besides scrutinizing the Commercial Crew Program, Mikulski also asked Bolden whether NASA was formulating a plan to deal with further budget cuts in the form of sequestration — automatic cuts to federal discretionary spending that would take effect in 2013 unless Congress enacts a new deficit-reduction plan. She said NASA’s budget would be cut a further 8 percent if sequestration takes effect. As it stands, the White House is proposing to cut NASA’s nearly $17.8 billion budget by roughly $60 million next year.

Bolden said, as he has before, that he is confident Congress will head off the sequestration cuts and that NASA has not been doing any contingency planning.

“We have not taken a hard look at what would be the results of a sequester,” Bolden said, before adding that NASA likely would have ”to put all of our funds on the priorities and forsake everything else.

“That would be the only way that we would be able to see those three priorities stick to the dates we have right now,” he said.

Last year, NASA and its congressional stakeholders led by Hutchison singled out three top agency priorities: supporting ISS operations through at least 2020, keeping SLS and Orion on track for their 2021 crewed debut, and launching the overbudget James Webb Space Telescope in 2018.

Mikulski, who took a lead role in bailing out the $8.8 billion Webb telescope being built in her state, told Bolden the agency cannot afford any more setbacks.

“Don’t think this is like the Hubble. If anything gets screwed up, I can’t pull a rabbit out of a hat,” she said. “I don’t have a rabbit and I don’t have a hat.”

 

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