WASHINGTON — U.S. lawmakers accused the administration of U.S. President Barack Obama of trying to undermine legislation directing NASA to develop a heavy-lift rocket while continuing work on a deep space capsule and said they intend to see to it that the law is followed.
During a nearly two-hour-long hearing Dec. 1, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) and fellow members of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee sought assurance that NASA intends to carry out the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 the president signed into law Oct. 11, despite fiscal uncertainties the agency faces in the absence of a 2011 appropriations bill.
“We passed it, the president signed it into law, and now we want that law implemented,” even if NASA is forced to continue operating at 2010 spending levels as part of a stopgap measure Congress is likely to approve this month, Nelson said. Known as a continuing resolution, the temporary appropriation would hold NASA spending rates to levels consistent with the $18.7 billion Congress approved for the agency last year, a figure that Nelson said is just 1.67 percent shy of the $19 billion lawmakers authorized for NASA in 2011. “We want to see this law implemented without a lot of griping and moaning and groaning if we’re able to get that kind of appropriation,” said Nelson, chairman of the panel’s science and space subcommittee.
Recalling what he characterized as “misstatements” and “sometimes mischief” on the part of Obama administration officials before Congress approved the authorization bill in September, Nelson said he is concerned NASA is putting off plans to initiate development of a new space launch system as directed in the law. Specifically, the bill authorizes $3 billion next year for continued work on a multipurpose crew capsule based on NASA’s Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and development of a new heavy-lift rocket with core elements capable of delivering between 70 and 100 metric tons to orbit by the end of 2016.
In remarks following the hearing, Nelson declined to name names but said there were attempts by “certain people within the administration” to prevent the authorization measure’s passage in both the Senate and U.S. House.
“I want to make sure that those elements in the administration who were trying to have their way, instead of the way that is the law, that they’re not going to undermine this law,” Nelson said.
NASA Chief Financial Officer Elizabeth Robinson, who testified during the hearing, said the agency is eager to carry out elements of the authorization act. But she said NASA is prevented in some cases by restrictions in the continuing resolution under which the agency currently operates. Those restrictions, she said, include a prohibition on canceling NASA’s Constellation program, a 5-year-old effort to replace the space shuttle fleet with Orion and the Ares family of rockets optimized for lunar missions.
“While work with exploration may begin to address the provisions of the authorization act, the [continuing resolution] restrictions maintain prohibitions on program element terminations within the Constellation program, which may eventually limit application of funding needed for key exploration activities,” Robinson said in prepared testimony.
Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) accused the Obama administration of using language in the 2010 appropriations act for NASA and upheld in the continuing resolution to delay work on the new space launch system mandated in the authorization act.
“I’m not saying that language is irrelevant, but I really think it’s largely an excuse,” Vitter said. “The irony is pretty clear. Before this new authorization bill the administration was doing absolutely everything it could administratively to shut down Constellation programs. Now after the new authorization bill has passed, the administration is pointing to that language saying we can’t possibly end Constellation and stop those programs.”
Vitter said Congress is already working on new language that could be inserted into a continuing resolution or omnibus spending package for 2011 that would remove such impediments, adding that he is “committed to working on anything we need to work on legislatively to clear away any remaining hurdles like the language from last year’s appropriations bill.”
Nelson also asked whether NASA plans to carry out an additional flight of the space shuttle next year as authorized in the new law.
Robinson said the agency plans to conduct the additional flight to the international space station.
“The only caveat I would put forth is we still don’t have a final appropriations [act], so we don’t know if we have the money to carry it out,” she said. “We’re trying to quantify what it means to hedge our bets in case there’s a drastic change in funding level, but we have every intention of moving forward on that.”
Nelson asked Robinson what programs might suffer if NASA is forced to continue operating under the stopgap spending measure through the end of 2011, which would leave the agency $276 million short of the $19 billion Congress authorized for 2011.
“The [NASA] administrator has already considered that, and he decided that the best place to take that money would be the 21st century launch initiative for 2011,” she said, referring to $429 million authorized for 2011 that would pay for upgrades at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Nelson’s home state. “It would be difficult at this point once we get clearance to actually obligate all that money so we wanted to take the reduction there with the thought that we would take it up later.”