Congress Expresses Enthusiasm and Doubt About New Space Policy

By Keith Cowing
February 12, 2004
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Congress Expresses Enthusiasm and Doubt About New Space Policy

The House Science Committee invited the Administrator of NASA and the President’s Science Advisor to testify on the President’s new space policy.

While the Committee expressed bipartisan support and enthusiasm for the policy, they expressed an equal amount of doubt about the cost of the policy and NASA’s ability to carry it out.

They also questioned the wisdom of canceling a shuttle repair mission to the Hubble Space Telescope on the basis of risk if the new space policy sought to send humans back to the Moon and then on to Mars.

Moreover NASA now sees a planned return to flight for the Shuttle this Fall to be doubtful.

House Science Committee Chair Rep. Sherwood Bohelert (R-NY) opened the hearing by saying “Right now we have far more questions than answers.” He went on to say “I remain open minded about this proposal. The President and his advisors should be congratulated for doing something no one has done for 40 years: laying out a space policy with a seemingly reasonable price tag.”

Ranking minority Member Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN) said that this proposal has “the potential to make significant changes to NASA. I am pleased that the President has made long term recommendations. It is important for this nation to make a commitment to the sustained robotic and human exploration of the solar system.” He added that he felt that a “sustained presence on the moon makes a lot of sense”.

Gordon went on to say that further analysis may show that NASA’s plans are unrealistic but that this should “not be the end of the process” and that in such an eventuality NASA would need to go back and take a re-look at things. He added that “I am concerned that other NASA programs not be cannibalized.”

Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee Chair Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) opened by saying “how many time have we pointed to this slogan on the wall (“without vision the people shall perish”). Well, we got it. The President has a game plan for us. Now it is up to us to do our part of the job – to get on board. One thing that makes a strategy is to set priorities. In contrast to Mr. Gordon’s concerns, I expect the President to cannibalize other programs in order to make this program work. That is called setting priorities. But these must be clear decisions that this priority is more important than another.”

Later in the hearing Rohrabacher noted that much of the planned reprioritization was coming from the Space Launch Initiative, something Rohrabacher supported over the years. He said that he supported this reprioritization in order to make the new space policy work.

Rohrabacher continued saying “I have been a staunch advocate of returning to the moon and establishing a permanent presence and that this could be a stepping stone to the further exploration of the universe.” He cautioned “NASA must make clear how investments will support a combination of human, robotic, and private sector initiatives. Nothing less threatens the credibility of the President’s space vision.”

Rep. Nick Lampson (D-TX) said that the announcement of the new space policy was “welcome and overdue”. Lampson added that he has been “pushing for an agenda of space exploration” and the he has introduced a bill to that effect the present and previous Congress.

“Space exploration brings out the best in us as a people” Lampson said “But I also need to be convinced that the implementation plan is credible and sustainable.” Referring to the realism of costs of this new policy Lampson said ” “I don’t want to put 10 pounds of new tasks into a 5 pound budgetary sack. We are being given the opportunity to construct a productive and exciting future for our civil space program and we need to get it right.”

Presidential Science Advisor John Marburger opened his comments by repeating the description that President Bush made on January 14th. “The President describes this vision as a journey not a race. This is different from Apollo which required a massive budget spike and an aggressive schedule. This policy is set such that each step seeks to reduce the cost of all subsequent missions. The emphasis is on sustained exploration and discovery in an appropriate means at a pace we can afford in terms and risk we can afford.”

With regards to destinations in space, Marburger added that “the moon is the closest platform that will allow all aspects of these future programs to be tested. It is not just a more remote version of the International Space Station. The long term value of the Moon is not in terms of science but rather its value in all future exploration missions.”

Marburger then addressed the issue of cutting other programs to fund the new initiative he said that much of the $11 billion that are reprioritized between fiscal year 2005 and 2009 comes from cancellation of the Space Launch Initiative, space shuttle retirement, and prioritization of research on ISS.

NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe then testified “this is not a crash program to achieve single point destination objectives. It is a deliberate focus on Lunar, Mars, and beyond objectives. The exploration will be informed by science. We need to knock down science and technology hurdles at each turn. [This policy] does not anticipate inventions along the way. Rather it assumes that events along the way are used to adjust the path.”

Regarding cost concerns O’Keefe said “The plan is fiscally realistic and fits within the President’s overall plan to reduce the deficit. It is achievable and affordable. There is no massive commitment today that will need to be paid for by some future Congress. Rather, this plan will be evaluated along the way as an annual matter of review. There is no commitment being asked for today for a large balloon payment in the future.”

For the foreseeable future NASA is dependant on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to carry crews to and from the International Space Station. The new policy plan calls once again for such a reliance on Russia after the space shuttle is retired in 2010. O’Keefe was asked if he was going to seek legislative relief from the provisions of the Iran Nonproliferation Act which precludes purchase of goods or services (such as Soyuz) from Russia. O’Keefe replied “we are not seeking exemption to the law at this time. But we are continuing our negotiations with our partners right now.”

Regarding the cancellation of the Space Shuttle Servicing mission John Marburger said that this decision is “based on a safety assessment by NASA and Columbia Accident Investigation Board recommendations. I support NASA’s concerns about safety and NASA’s request to Admiral Gehman to review this.”

As to Hubble importance Marburger said “Hubble has had a greater impact on astronomy than any astronomical instrument since those developed by Galileo”. Regarding the continued value of Hubble Marburger noted that “tremendous progress has been made with ground based telescopes. Adaptive optics are now competitive with and sometimes better than Hubble at longer wavelength such as the near infrared.” Since Hubble is principally an optical (visible) instrument, Marburger noted that reports including the recent Decadal Survey by the astronomy community saw many of the next great discoveries to be in the infrared – something the Hubble cannot do.

Rep. Mark Udall (D-CO) suggested that if it is safe enough to fly to the space station, then it is safe to fly to Hubble. “If we are too risk adverse to send a mission to Hubble where does this place things with regards to mission to Mars or the Moon?” He asked

Sean O’Keefe said “this was one of the most painful decisions I have had to confront. My concern was not generated by risk aversion. It was generated by a capacity that we intend to embrace the recommendations of CAIB – and that facing the prospect of this mission at the time it needs to happen that we could not comply with all of those recommendations.

With regard to contingency planning “what do you do in the event of a contingency” O’Keefe asked. “On ISS you have multiple means to examine the shuttle as it approaches the ISS. There is no comparable means on a Hubble mission. The only way you do this is have a second shuttle available. The only way to get safe haven is to tether entire crew to another shuttle and drag them across. We have never tried it. And a full analysis was in CAIB report.”

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) who represents regions near NASA ARC noted that O’Keefe had brought someone from the Navy onto his staff with a background in BRAC – Base Realignment and Closure activities. She asked “Is it your intention to close one or more centers?”

O’Keefe replied that NASA is developing a strategy, in the process of implementing full cost accounting, to look at all faculties at ARC and elsewhere at the agency. O’Keefe noted that the person in question had a background in the realignment aspect of BRAC – that is, how to use facilities for a new mission once the previous mission was completed. O’Keefe went on to say that NASA has no plans to close anything right now.

Central to many issues raised in this hearing is when the Shuttle fleet will resume operations.

When asked if NASA’s current plan for a September 2004 return to flight for the Shuttle O’Keefe said “Based on information I have seen in the last 10 days there are two items that make that prospect low.” First, regarding the Shuttle’s External Tank, an external panel and the Stafford-Covey Task force have recommended that we expand the coverage of the tank with regard to protection from debris. Second, the development of the imaging capacity of an inspection system is continuing to have issues.

“I have my doubts and I do not believe that the September/October time frame and we will determine that next week.” O’Keefe said.

SpaceRef co-founder, Explorers Club Fellow, ex-NASA, Away Teams, Journalist, Space & Astrobiology, Lapsed climber.