Goldin Before Congress: Space Station Science Cuts and “Baby Sitting” for Dennis Tito

By Keith Cowing
May 2, 2001
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The House Science Committee’s Subcommittee on Space and Astronautics held its first NASA “posture” hearing of the year. Posture hearings are the unofficial kick off of the year’s budget process in Congress wherein an Administrator gets to present the Administration’s agenda for the agency’s upcoming fiscal year. Dan Goldin appeared by himself.

  • Charter, NASA FY 2002 Posture Hearing, House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics

    “The Subcommittee will receive testimony from the Honorable Daniel Goldin, Administrator of NASA. He has been asked to address the following questions in his prepared statement:

    1. What scientific priorities are reflected in the FY2002 budget request?
    2. What high-priority technologies will be developed if the FY2002 budget request is enacted?
    3. What options do you envision for the future of the International Space Station? What is your timeline for presenting these options to Congress?”

    Subcommittee Chair Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) opened the hearings by noting (with some pleasure) that the FY 2002 budget request marks the first sustained increase in NASA’s budget since 1993. His attention turned quickly to NASA’s biggest headache – the $4+ billion cost overrun on the International Space Station program. In addressing the need to resolve this problem Rohrabacher said that “our zeal for fixing the problem must not result in greater reliance upon the Russians” and a “dysfunctional socialist political partnership.”

    Ranking Minority Member Bart Gordon (D-TN) leapt right out of the blocks and was much less generous to the Bush Administration’s budget. While noting that it did seek to tackle problems at NASA he said that he was “concerned” and “troubled” about the request. Gordon said that this represents only a 1.8% increase over the FY 2001 budget – an increase that is less than half that given to other federal discretionary accounts. One specific example Gordon focused on was aeronautics. This request means that “aeronautics at NASA is only 1/3 the size it was in 1994.”

    Gordon took issue with Goldin’s frequent description of a shift in research focus from “evolutionary” to “revolutionary” noting that he had heard all of this several years ago yet the program continues to shrink. Gordon also expressed concern about cancellation by NASA of several university-based programs noting that this strategy was akin to “robbing Peter to pay Paul”. In closing, Gordon asked Goldin why NASA was “subsidizing” the Department of Defense to the tune of $27 million on an Athena launch vehicle.

    Goldin then proceeded with his presentation.. For starters he showed the razzle dazzle feel good video he showed at NASA’s FY 2002 budget conference several months ago. He then skipped through his prepared comments noting that the net result of the FY 2002 budget was a more robust Mars exploration program with problems resoled on the Gravity Probe B and Europa Orbiter programs. These problems were “resolved” with money raised by the cancellation of MUSES CN, Pluto Kuiper Express, and Solar Probe as well as the termination of programs of lesser priority such as preparatory humans to Mars research.

    With regard to the international Space Station Goldin said that a ISS program level review was now complete, and that an agency-wide assessment would by done by the end of July. In parallel, a research assessment for ISS was also underway with a due date expected in July. He described the President’s FY 2002 budget and associated guidance documents as supportive of the completion of the “U.S. Core (i.e. the minimal infrastructure required or NASA to meet its international obligations) and that the Administration had laid out guidelines wherein “enhancements” could be added back in.

    Goldin then dropped a little surprise on the Committee by announcing that his Chief of Staff (White House Liaison) Courtney Stadd had been asked to coordinate an agency wide commercialization effort to eventually produce an “enhanced commercialization strategy.”

    Rep. Rohrabacher stared the questions by asking about the status of Solar Power Satellite funding in FY 2002. NASA Comptroller Mal Peterson replied that there was no money in the FY 2002 budget but that some of the funds appropriated in the FY 2001 budget will be spent in 2002.

    Rohrabacher then asked bout the status of the Space Launch Initiative (SLI). In so doing he repeated a common concern of his that this program seek to develop cutting edge capabilities – not fund existing capabilities (i.e. the Space Shuttle). He also asked Goldin to explain how NASA was looking at reusable technologies (RLV) while DoD was looking at expendables. Goldin replied that the bulk of the RLV work to be done by NASA will have applicability to reusable boosters.

    Rohrabacher asked if there is a consensus whereby a line was drawn between the reusable research to be performed by NASA an the expendable research to be performed by the DoD. He suggested that this demarcation between expendable and reusable research should be re-examined and that it would be wise for both NASA and DoD to be able to work on both RLV and expendable technology.

    Goldin replied that this will be brought up at his next meeting with SIG space at DOD and the Director of the NRO (National Reconnaissance Office) on 7 July 2001.

    Rohrabacher then moved to the $4 billion cost overrun on ISS asking Goldin how he expects to meet the challenge. Goldin replied that one way NASA would raise the money would be to defer (not cancel) “high risk items such as the Habitation Module, Crew Return vehicle, Propulsion Module, Node 3, and advanced life support. By doing this Goldin said that NASA could realize $2 billion in savings. Goldin then went on to vaguely describe some management improvements that were supposed to provide substantial decrease in cost.

    This would still leave approximately $2 billion left to cover. In addition, Goldin referred to putting a halt to lower priority research such as humans to Mars. Rohrabacher replied promptly “I am glad to hear that – I think we are getting ahead of ourselves and that we have to set priorities.” Goldin replied that this activity freed up civil servants who could now be applied towards NASA’s more urgent problems such as the Space Station instead of having them work on “low priority or extraneous tasks”.

    Rep. Gordon once again shot out of the blocks and asked Goldin about the cuts and their effect upon research on the ISS. If these cuts come to pass he said “we won’t have the ISS crew and research facilities that will deliver the promised research.” He added that the Administration’s plan would seem to set NASA in the direction of being “more – not less – reliant upon Russia.”

    Goldin replied that the funding of research is “something we have to deal with.” He said “we have had to do more with less for almost a decade. He explained the origin of the cost overruns as being due, in great part, to “operations costs that were higher than projected.” Goldin then went on to repeat that there wasn’t going to be a cancellation of things on the ISS – but rather that they would be “put on hold”.

    As an example Goldin said that there were funds in the FY 2002 budget to allow completion of X-38 testing so as to allow NASA to retire the technical risk inherent in that program as the basis for possibly proceeding with the final Crew Return Vehicle. He said that he had been working with the European community on this and they had expressed interest in greater participation – and in making “a significant investment.”.

    With regard to the recent announcement of discussions with Italy on the possibility of having them build the Hab module, Goldin said “we’re interested in having Italy do the whole thing”.

    Gordon replied ” Is this ‘tin cup’ diplomacy?” Goldin answered “maybe.” Gordon then said ” OK … the point is – you’re trying.” Goldin nodded.

    Gordon then said that $30 billion has been spent on the ISS and now, without the Hab module, we’ll only have half a person to do science since NASA estimates that it takes 2.5 people to operate and maintain the ISS. Goldin replied that the quantity of science will decrease. He said that there would be 20 hours per week set aside for science with a 3 person crew in comparison with an estimated 160 to 180 hours per week that would be available for science with a full (7 person) crew.

    Goldin said “When NASA develops better cost credibility we will be able to solve additional problems.” He went on to say ” The U.S. spent tens of billions of dollars on this project. Our partners have spent 10 billion. If it’s a few billion – it’s on the margin.”

    Gordon then asked Goldin why NASA is subsidizing the DoD. Goldin replied “we had a launch vehicle (Athena II) that we weren’t using. The DoD paid all of the future costs and we have two payloads that will be flown on the vehicle.

    Rep. Dave Weldon (R-FL) started his questions by noting with pleasure that “after 7 years of a declining or flat budget I am glad to see and increase in NASA’s budget.” Weldon then went on to ask Goldin how he plans to address the critical issue of looking after and replacing NASA’s aging infrastructure. Weldon noted that some things at KSC are falling apart and that some of the items are from the Apollo era.

    Goldin replied that this is a serious issue – one that is seen all over the agency (and others such as DOE) and could cost hundreds of millions of dollars. One example is the Vehicle Assembly Building (VAB) at KSC High winds could take off roof or siding panels. There are also wiring problems. Goldin said that consideration was now being given to addressing some of these infrastructural problems in exchange for some Shuttle upgrades – the key issue being safety. In FY 2003 budget Goldin said that NASA intends to mention this issue.

    Weldon then asked Goldin to describe NASA’s current commercialization efforts on the ISS “now that you have it up there.” Goldin replied that there were four main points that NASA was following as it moved towards commercialization efforts: NASA would make a commitment to economic development; that there be a broad scope given to market realities; that these efforts not rely upon government funds – but rather seek to entice the private sector to put its own capital at risk; and that these efforts have no impact on ISS safety.

    Weldon asked Goldin to describe what is meant by :”Shuttle privatization” in the President’s FY 202 budget “Blueprint”. Goldin replied that a challenge lay ahead with implementation of Phase II of the SFOC. He said that this would be a real test of people’s dedication. Three things are on the table; External Tank (ET) operations at Michoud (Lockheed Martin); SSME – Space Shuttle Main Engines (Boeing) and the SRM – Solid Rocket Motors (Alliant Tech Systems).

    Goldin said that the test would be whether Boeing would allow the ET operations to be moved to USA (United Space Alliance – a joint Boeing/Lockheed Martin company); and that Lockheed Martin would do the same for SSME work. “These companies have to ‘let go ‘” Goldin said. “This is going to take a lot of adult supervision”. He added.

    Rep. Lampson (D-TX) then cited a letter from USRA – the Universities Space Research Association – that expressed concerns about cuts to NASA’s cuts in space station science. Lampson said that “I am having a hard time explaining to my constituents why we are building a Space Station if a millionaire can go there while research funding is being cut.” He then asked Goldin (with regard to the impact Tito’s visit is having on ISS operations) what the cost to NASA is for Tito’s visit.

    Goldin replied that much of what was being circulated in the media – such NASA being against the idea of having visitors to the space station – is not true. He said “the current situation ahs put a lot of stress on people at NASA”. “I don’t know how he got the contract to go there, but this stress is real. “There are provisions in the IGA wherein NASA can recover costs, from Russia” Goldin said. “We will do an assessment – and will get redress and reimbursement.”

    Goldin shifted the conversation a bit by saying that he and NASA had conversations with filmmaker James Cameron about his expressed interest in going to the ISS. Goldin cited comments in the New York post wherein Cameron is quoted as saying “It has to be done with the blessing of the international partners”. Goldin said that Cameron had decided to wait until such time as the procedures were in place for visitors to the ISS. Goldin was clearly enamoured with Cameron’s comments referring to him as an “American Patriot”.

    Editor’s note: James Cameron is Canadian.

    Rep. Nethercutt (R-WA) Cited a study by the National Academy of Sciences that is required by the FY 2002 budget. This study would look into the level of readiness within the scientific community to make use of the ISS. “I am concerned about this readiness. The budget of NASA’s Office of Biological Research Programs (OBRP) is not adequate.” He noted that a recent letter by NASA’s Space Station Biological Research Project Science Working Group to Office of Space Flight Associate Administrator Joe Rothenberg which expressed considerable concern over the projected cuts. The committee members threatened to resign in protest.

    Goldin replied “yes, scientists are – and should be – concerned.” He said that NASA was still going to be able to meet its original commitment for science through 2004 including the placement of 10 research racks aboard the ISS. After that “the President has asked us to stop, prioritize, focus, and plan.” “He has no objection to putting things back into the program – so long as we make sure we know where we are.” Goldin said that there was an ongoing research assessment activity at NASA with results due at the end of July. Goldin said that it may be possible to add 5 to 10 more racks – and that the international partners may be providing some of these racks.

    Nethercutt asked if Goldin saw the value in having an annual (dedicated) life and microgravity sciences shuttle mission. Goldin replied simply “that would cost money – money that won’t go to the ISS.” As part of the 2003 budget Goldin said that there would be an request for increased funding for OBRP but that in the mean time NASA has to live within the President’s cost cap on the ISS.

    Rep. Etheridge (D-NC) asked Goldin to elaborate on earlier comments regarding advanced biology as a focus for NASA and the ISS. Goldin replied that the first half of the last century saw a revolution in physics. The second half saw a revolution in medicine. In the 21st century Goldin said that the promise of nanotechnology and being able to manipulate things on an atom by atom level would bring many new advances. Etheridge asked Goldin if he had considered that the budget decision being made today vis-a-vis cutting certain research areas might have a deleterious impact on the future – suggesting that “opportunities delayed may be opportunities lost.”

    Rep. Miller (R-CA) returned to the topic of Russian reimbursement for any costs incurred by the US because of Dennis Tito’s visit to the ISS. He expressed concern that NASA would only be assessing these impacts after the fact. “This is bothersome to me” he said. Goldin replied that “we don’t know what the delays are in advance”. He noted that the ISS crew has to “baby-sit Mr. Tito so that nothing goes wrong.” Miller replied “that’s an expensive baby sitter!”. Goldin replied “It is more than the $1.75 an hour I used to pay for a babysitter for my children.”

    Miller asked Goldin to comment on the results of a NASA Inspector General’s report that said that found that NASA does not have a truly independent cost mechanism in place. He asked Goldin to explain why NASA cancelled last year’s Independent Annual Review (IAR) of the ISS program. Goldin replied that his staff had looked at the IG’s report and taken its recommendations to heart. He then said that NASA will do an IAR on the ISS this year.

    Turning to the recent NASA/Italy announcements regarding the Hab module Miller asked Goldin “if this is such a good idea now, why didn’t NASA consider it earlier?” Goldin replied “probably pride.” He went on to say that “this is probably one of the good things that resulted from the President’s budgetary direction.” He said that NASA was being careful this time noting that ” we made some bartering arrangements before and it ended up costing us more money.” “We’ve just agreed to talk with the Italians” he said. “We will clearly review everything with the Committee.”

    Rep. Larson (D-CT) Asked Goldin to comment on the state of NASA’s university relations. Goldin replied that NASA would be releasing an NRA (NASA Research Announcement) next month that would solicit proposals in nanotechnology, biotechnology, and information technology (and the fusion of these three areas) as well as in the area of advanced propulsion. Goldin said that these grants would be $3 – 5 million a year for up to 10 years. After 5 years each awardees progress would be evaluated and a decision made as to whether to fund for another 5 years (making 10). Goldin said that he hoped that NASA could build centers of excellence in the locations where this ‘far out’ technology is being born.

    Rep. Jackson-Lee (D-TX) opened by saying that she was “very concerned. Every time we have asked you to tighten your belt – you have done so.” She then asked “If you could increase your budget – how would you do so?” Goldin replied that he “declined the invitation to talk about additional money” – and that he “supported the President’s budget.”

    Goldin said that safety was NASA’s number one concern and that NASA would not add any more crew members to the ISS if it is not safe to do so. He then went on to characterize the implications of the President’s budget as a “loss”. Instead, he said “NASA has the President’s support to build the U.S. core module and to put other things off until NASA can retire technical risks; achieve cost credibility; and to make sue that the money is actually there to spend”.

    When asked about the move of ISS management from JSC to NASA Headquarters, Goldin said he had every confidence that JSC will be able to manage the ISS program again and that benefits will result from that leadership.

    Rohrabacher closed the hearing by saying “you have this chairman’s support as you chose priorities and make cuts. In saying this he noted that in the private sector corporate downsizing can often lead to renewed productivity and strength.

    Related Links

  • 2 May 2001: Charter, NASA FY 2002 Posture Hearing, House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics

  • 30 April 2001: Director’s Titanic Space Wish, NY Post

    Background Information

  • 11 April 2001: AIP FYI No. 44: NASA FY 2002 Request: Space Science, Academic Programs, American Institute of Physics

  • 10 April 2001: AIP FYI No. 42 President Bush’s FY 2002 S&T Program Budget Requests, American Institute of Physics

  • 10 April 2001: House Staff Analysis Finds Uneven Support For Federal Research & Development Programs in President’s Budget, House Minority membership

  • 9 April 2001: NASA’s FY 2002 Budget: Challenges and Opportunities, SpaceRef

  • 9 April 2001: Details of NASA’s FY 2002 Budget, OMB/White House

  • 6 April 2001: Congress, NASA, and the International Space Station: A New Civility?, SpaceRef (in four parts)

  • 23 March 2001: Space-station cuts leave research in lurch, Nature, [A subscription fee is required for full access.]

    “Scientists who hope to work on the International Space Station fear that proposed budget cuts will severely impair the orbiting laboratory’s research potential. The researchers say that a new attempt to cut costs represents the biggest setback for the project since its last major redesign in
    1993. The cost controls were introduced by the incoming Bush administration when it found that the station’s price tag had
    soared to $4 billion more than its planned level.”

  • 23 March 2001: SPACE BIOLOGY: New Cuts in Station Could Spark Walkout, Science, [summary – can be viewed for free once registered. A subscription fee is required for full access.]

    “U.S. researchers eager to use the international space station are threatening mutiny if NASA carries out plans to trim facilities and crew in the wake of exploding costs. A biological sciences advisory group says the proposed cuts undermine the scientific rationale for the station. Although critics have long questioned the station’s likely scientific payoff, what’s new about the latest attack is that it’s coming from the station’s staunchest scientific supporters.”

  • 9 March 2001: Budget Could Send Space Science Off in New Directions at NASA, Science, [summary – can be viewed for free once registered. A subscription fee is required for full access.]

    “On orders from the White House, NASA managers last week told Congress they intend to cancel plans for a Pluto flyby and a mission to study the solar wind. The agency is also following orders to make major cuts to the international space station after acknowledging huge cost overruns in the orbiting lab. Meanwhile, the president has called for a blue-ribbon panel of scientists to decide whether the space agency should swallow up the ground-based astronomy program run by the National Science Foundation.”

  • 28 February 2001: Highlights of 2002 NASA Funding: A Blueprint for New Beginnings — A Responsible Budget for America’s Priorities, White House

  • 28 February 2001: Memo NASA Staff: FY 2002 Budget Blueprint Overview by NASA Associate Administrator for Space Flight Joe Rothenberg, NASA HQ

  • 23 February 2001: Letter from (former) JSC Center Director George Abbey to Senior Staff: Actions Required to Address ISS Budget Challenges

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