Sean O’Keefe Testifies on NASA’s FY 2003 Budget Before the House Science Committee (Part 1)

By Keith Cowing
March 3, 2002
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Armed with 8 weeks of on the job experience, NASA Administrator Sean O’Keefe appeared before the House Science Committee [ hearing charter] this week to discuss NASA’s FY 2003 Budget. O’Keefe faced a committee still inclined to give a newcomer the benefit of the doubt – but at the same time, not at all shy about making their views known.


While the hearing had set the entire agency’s budget as its focus for the day, it became quite clear within moments of being convened that there were two topics of prime interest: budget problems with the International Space Station and Space Shuttle flight rate. Everything else that came up did so in the shadow of the effect that these programs – and their problems – had on the agency as a whole.

One of the prime recommendations of last Fall’s Young Committee report was that NASA needed to modify its approach to the ISS program so as to focus on a configuration called “U.S. Core Complete”. This configuration would accommodate all international partner modules and would be capable of supporting a 3 person crew. If – and only if – NASA has a credible plan in place for meeting this goal will consideration be given to what O’Keefe refereed to as “excursions” from this milestone whereby additional crew and performance capabilities would be added.

Given that NASA estimates show that it takes between 2 to 3 people to operate the ISS, being held at a 3 person crew (as opposed to the original plan for 7 people) would leave little or no room for the scientific and technical utilization of the ISS that all participants – foreign and domestic – were planning for.

O’Keefe has been constant in his stance on the matter. When numbers beyond a 3 person crew come up – he defers on making a direct answer by saying that he does not know what the “right number” is and that various cost and planning studies need to be completed before he can start to talk about specific numbers in excess of 3.

One of the ways that the Young Committee came up with to achieve cost savings on the ISS program is to limit the number of Space Shuttle flights to 4 per year. This is what Young’s team felt were needed for the projected build up and support of the ISS. Should additional science requirements arise – complete with the necessary funding – additional flights beyond 4 would be considered. Examples are STS-109, the current Hubble Servicing Mission, and STS-107, a non-ISS Shuttle science mission.

Since a 4 or 5 flight per year rate is less than what NASA had been planning, politicians are concerned. A lower flight rate will likely result in fewer people on the payroll. Coupled in with an interest in possible privatization of all or part of the Space Shuttle program, additional cuts in personnel – civil service and contractor – could be in the offing. When looming job cuts appear, politicians become concerned.

It is against this backdrop that the House Science Committee welcomed O’Keefe to his first congressional appearance as NASA Administrator.

Opening Statements

In reading from his prepared statement House Science Committee Chair Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) quickly got to the heart of the matter: “Will the space station be expanded beyond core complete? What kinds of experiments will be conducted on the space station and who will select them? What missions will be sent to the outer planets? What will the future role of NASA in climate change research be? What will the role of the private sector be in operating the space shuttle in the future? How will the Space Launch Initiative proceed?”

Right now NASA has a variety of studies underway. Some, such as the Strategic Resources Review (SRR) were underway well before O’Keefe came to NASA. Others, begun at O’Keefe’s request, are now getting underway. At the core of these studies is understanding the fiscal situation O’Keefe inherited and what options exist for the agency as a whole to respond to these changes by re-configuring itself and the way it does business.

As is often the case with NASA’s internal review process, much of the workings are tightly held. Boehlert expressed some frustration in this regard: ” … we will have to probe today to get a greater sense of how those reviews will be structured and what NASA is likely to look like a year from now.”

Ranking Minority Member Ralph Hall (D-TX) was much less charitable than Boehlert and did not mince words. Reading from a prepared statement Hall said “É we cannot adequately evaluate NASA’s budget request nor can we meet our oversight responsibilities if Congress is kept in the dark about such things as NASA’s Strategic Resources Review and what is being planned for the future of the NASA institution. We will need straight talk about your plans sooner rather than later if we are going to achieve any consensus on the best way forward.”

He went on to note “it is now more than a year since OMB directed NASA to redesign the Space Station and almost a third of a year since the Tom Young task force delivered its report. Nothing has happened in that time to change my view that OMB is taking the Space Station in the wrong direction.”

Hall then launched into a standard co=1>Hall then challenged O’Keefe to “declare unambiguously and immediately that this Administration is committed to completing the Space Station defined in the international agreements governing the program. That simple declaration will go a long way towards eliminating the confusion and concern that Space Station supporters, our International Partners, and the American taxpayers are feeling about where the Space Station program is headed.”

In closing, Hall took an off the cuff jab at the latest spate of possible commercial passengers to the ISS aboard a Russian Soyuz spacecraft. “If we cannot do this, I think we’d find it hard to justify this to the taxpayers. Otherwise the ISS will end up as end destination for pop singers and South African millionaires.”

Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee chair Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) then spoke exclaiming “at last – you are here! Better late than never.” He went on to say that he thinks that the Bush Administration “deserves some criticism that it took so long to get someone here on a permanent basis. We face some serious challenges and Rep. Hall is right: the space station is the most severe challenge we face. If it is not handled correctly we will loose the allegiance of the American people.”

Rohrabacher continued; “the challenge we face on the space station is based upon poor judgement and incompetence in the last Administration. They used NASA as a playpen and sent contingency to Russia of all places – and we have seen nothing for this money.” We have to be willing that a tough stand be taken – and we need to take a tough stand and see what needs to be cut from NASA budget to make ISS a success. I think we should cut what the last Administration supported.”

He concluded by noting that “Dan Goldin was a fine man”. However, as a result of what was done during the Clinton Administration “they can’t even audit the books at NASA.”

Sean O’Keefe opened by reading from his prepared testimony, noting that he has had the chance to visit all of NASA’s 10 field centers. With these visits under his belt, he said that he has begun to gain an understanding of “NASA’s core competencies”. O’Keefe has been to JSC twice – the second time was the day before this hearing when he attended a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council.

Of his trip to all of NASA’s centers, O’Keefe said “there is one aspect I find most interesting – and did not anticipate to see: the unbridled enthusiasm, energy, and creativity at this agency.” O’Keefe said that this had been “enlightening” and that it provided “enthusiasm to press on”.

O’Keefe then addressed a “handful of initiatives in the FY 2003 budget” that he was pursuing:

The first initiative is “a vigorous, aggressive implementation of the President’s management agenda. There are 5 items within this plan that apply to all Federal agencies.” One specific item with special interest to O’Keefe is human capital. “We have some challenging issues given the age and experience level in NASA. A substantial portion (one third of the workforce) are eligible to retire in the next three to five years.”

The other items in the management agenda are competitive outsourcing, E-government, improved financial management, and budget performance integration “breathing life into the Government Performance and Results Act (GPRA) of 1993 by establishing a linkage between resources and objectives”.

The second initiative is in space science. O’Keefe quickly listed upcoming Mars and Hubble Space Telescope missions, and the nuclear power initiative he has implemented that looks to cut travel time across the solar system.

The third initiative is education. O’Keefe said “We need to bring people [into NASA] who have familiarity with what educational requirements should be.” O’Keefe will be looking to his new General Counsel, Paul Pastorek, who has previous experience as head of the State Of Louisiana’s School Board.

The last, and most pressing initiative is the International Space Station. According to O’Keefe NASA’s current actions are guided in great part by the Young Committee’s recommendations. In working towards a plan to reach U.S. Core Complete, O’Keefe identified five “parallel tracks”. Once the path to Core Complete is in place O’Keefe said NASA can then turn to looking at total completion of the ISS.

According to O’Keefe’s prepared testimony these tracks are:

  1. Research Priorities – Establishing an integrated portfolio of science and technology priorities that maximize the benefits of space-based research within available resources. [Note: O’Keefe said that he hopes to have the results of this prioritization by the middle of Spring or early Summer.]
  2. Engineering Development/Deployment – Development of a program road map that focuses on successfully achieving a “core complete” configuration. Should NASA demonstrate that reforms are implemented and cost credibility is regained, this will enable future decisions towards a requirements-driven “end state” that will, defined in terms of science priorities, allow an expanded research potential for us and our international partners.[Note: O’Keefe said that the ISS is an “engineering marvel of historic proportions]
  3. Cost Estimation and Analysis – The ISS is the largest and most complex program ever pursued by the United States. Implementation of improved methodologies, tools and controls are underway and will allow us to regain credibility and improve our ability in financial forecasting and strategic planning capabilities. These projects will be beneficial across the Agency. [Note: O’Keefe hopes to have a cost analysis in place by this Summer]
  4. International Partnerships – Maintaining cooperative international efforts and reaffirming NASA’s strong commitment in understanding their concerns and continuously working with them in the spirit of cooperation.
  5. Mission and Science Operations – Advanced planning for Space Shuttle and ISS operations to maximize the productivity of on-orbit research and ensure the safety of real-time operations.

Questions and Answers

Questions then began with Rep. Boehlert leading off. Boehlert asked O’Keefe to comment on Shuttle upgrades budget and safety. Specifically, would the proposed decrease in the Shuttle upgrade budget compromise safety. O’Keefe replied that safety is a prime priority and that $200 million will be devoted to safety upgrades. An additional $100 million will be spent on supportability upgrades. O’Keefe noted that he had met with NASA’s Safety Board and had asked them to provide him with recommendations on how to be more aggressive in this regard.

Boehlert then asked O’Keefe about the recent FY 2001 audit of NASA noting that the audit firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers, had not been able to complete their audit because they did not have the information they needed. O’Keefe replied the PriceWaterhouseCoopers team had visited him in his office. The firm said that after 7 years of being able to complete an audit, they’d have to “disclaim” this time. The cause cited was the need for greater documentation from NASA. O’Keefe said that the auditors had shared their findings with NASA more than a week ago and that the agency had 10 days to review this information. According to O’Keefe part of the problem lays in how NASA accounts for its expenses Vs its investments. [Note: OMB issued a press release on Federal agency audits on 28 February 2002. NASA’s Inspector General Issued a release and copies of audit materials on 1 March 2002]

The focus shifted to NASA’s future. Boehlert asked O’Keefe what sort of agency he envisioned a year from now. O’Keefe replied “one I hope is characterized as a leading agency in the Federal government of the President’s Management Agenda — as an example of how we should do business.”

Rep. Hall began his questions saying “You say it will not compromise safety. That is a excellent statement . I want to look beyond that statement. Is that based on the fact that only 3 [crew] would be in danger instead of 7?” O’Keefe replied “No. Whatever number of astronauts we deploy – we’d ensure their safety.”

O’Keefe expanded on this by saying “I met with Frank Culbertson and Charlie Precourt, and some of the Astronaut corps in Houston. What they are doing is looking into “safe haven” concept – how to cordon off the ISS [in case of an emergency].” O’Keefe quoted them as saying that they would only leave the vehicle “as a last resort.”

Rep. Hall said “Let me disagree with you. I listened to your testimony last year as a representative of OMB and read testimony today as NASA Administrator. I still do not know what your plan is for the ISS. You say “set science goals and then shape the vehicle to meet those goals. There has been 15 years of prioritization of research goals.” Hall then held up a thick pile of paper (reports). “People have looked at the research. I can’t say that this 15 years of scientific advice is wrong and that the people who built the ISS were wrong. You are handpicking yet another group to do yet another prioritization because you cut $1 billion.”

O’Keefe denied this. Hall pressed the issue and said “you have already identified $140 million in ISS research contracts to cut before your task force has even started its work.” O’Keefe admitted that he did not have the exact numbers and that he needed to check on this.

Hall then switched to international issues. “Will U.S. Core Complete meet all international agreements?” Hall referenced a 7 December 2001 article in the Orlando Sentinel wherein ISS partner representatives complained about proposed changes in the ISS program. An ESA representative is quoting as expressing difficulty in keeping people supportive of the program. The CSA complained that the re-scaled ISS program would limit their use of the ISS to 30 minutes per week. The Japanese complained that a 3 person crew was not acceptable and that continuing on this path would require a renegotiation of international agreements underlying the program. The Italians were quoted as “being in the dark and don’t know which way to go.”

“So, does Core Complete meet these agreements, yes or no?” Hall asked. O’Keefe replied that he couldn’t give a simple ‘yes;’ or ‘no’. He said “We will comply with all agreements to reach U.S. Core Complete. Thereafter we will assess what are the right schedules that all of us as partners can meet.”

Rep. Dave Weldon R-FL (whose district includes NASA KSC) began his questioning by referring to a recent Congressional Research Report “CRS Report: The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA): Overview, FY2003” issued on 14 February 2002 which says:

“Éthe FY2003 budget request does not include sufficient funding to build even the core complete configuration. According to NASA FY2003 budget charts, for the period FY2003-2006, there is a shortfall of $603 million. NASA asserts that it hopes to achieve $628 million in savings to compensate for the shortfall, but describes the potential savings in terms that make them seem uncertain. Some note that NASA’s overly optimistic approach to budgeting was largely responsible for the program’s current woes.”

Weldon asked “can you explain where savings are to be found.?” O’Keefe replied “through FY 2003 the resources are adequate to accomplish the tasks through Node 2 to get to U.S. Core Complete. Beyond that there is $600 million. I am not sure if that is the right number or not until an independent cost estimate is complete. When this [estimate] is complete it will affect FY 2004 budget recommendations.”

Weldon then asked about a “$2 billion reserve fund” that NASA Administrator Goldin referred to. “I understand that this money is gone. Have you looked at where they money has gone?” O’Keefe replied that he has “not done a forensic on past history”. He then referred to the Bush Administration’s approach in such matters i.e. that “time starts now”. O’Keefe has often said that he is not interested in going back an assigning blame, but rather in setting up a plan to move ahead and solve problems that exist. O’Keefe said “we do have $150 million per year in reserves for the next 5 years. There are some reserve funds. The CRS talks about what shortfall may exist after using those reserves.”

Weldon moved to another topic. “You and the president have decided to put a lot of money into SLI (Space Launch Initiative). NASA has a track record of consuming a lot of money on programs that do not produce a lot of fruit at the end. NASP (National Aerospace Plane), X-33, X-34 É how can you assure us that SLI will be different? You have a record of running a tight agency – it sounds like you are trying to do that again.”

O’Keefe replied “I will do my best to give you that guarantee.” He then cautioned “what NASA does involves risk. How do we overcome current limitations. Transcending limitations involves risk. I cannot speak to past experiences – but I can tell you that we are prepared to do is going to involve some risk. Some options may not turn out to be as good as what we expected them to be.”

As an example, O’Keefe turned to advanced propulsion. “It takes 11 years to get from Earth to the edge of the solar system using current technology. We have a proposal in this budget to spend nearly $1 billion on nuclear systems to cut that time. This will involve some risk.” He then referred to the extensive historical experience in nuclear propulsion resident within NASA and the U.S. Navy.

Part 2

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