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House Appropriators Grill Obama's Science Adviser on NASA Plan

John Holdren, director of the Office of Science and Technology Policy. Credit: NASA Photo by Bill Ingalls

WASHINGTON — U.S. President Barack Obama’s 2011 NASA budget request was greeted by skeptical and at times angry House appropriators during a hearing Feb. 24 in which at least one member vowed to obstruct the White House plan to scrap NASA’s Moon-bound Constellation program.

White House science adviser John Holdren was called to testify before the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee on Obama’s $147 billion research and development budget request for 2011, but spent the bulk of the two-hour hearing answering tough questions about NASA’s proposal to abandon a five-year-old plan to replace the aging space shuttle in favor of developing a commercial crew transportation system capable of ferrying astronauts to the international space station.

Holdren, who had testified earlier that day before the House Science and Technology Committee, fielded appropriators’ questions and complaints while NASA Administrator Charles Bolden did the same at a better-promoted, televised hearing before the Senate Commerce science and space subcommittee.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), the subcommittee’s ranking member, took issue with the Obama administration’s handling of the NASA proposal and accused the White House of secrecy and hubris.

“I just think the way you’ve gone about it has a degree of arrogance and I think you’re going to have a problem,” said Wolf, whose northern Virginia district is home to Orbital Sciences Corp., one of a handful of private firms that stands to benefit from Obama’s proposal to develop commercial crew transportation systems. “I am going to do everything I can to stop this and to see if there’s a way to kind of look at this thing in a different way.”

Members on both sides of the aisle were unimpressed with the lack of detail evident in Obama’s $19 billion funding request for the space agency, which would add $6 billion to NASA’s top-line spending profile over the next five years to develop commercial crew taxis, increase funding for Earth science and invest in research and development of heavy-lift propulsion technologies that could facilitate manned exploration of deep space. Rep. Allan Mollohan (D.-W.Va.), who chairs the panel, said he shared many of the administration’s concerns about Constellation’s cost and schedule but took issue with the failure of the White House to provide more detail about NASA’s proposed change of direction.

“You can expect when you come up to have to flesh out the rather skinny presentation that we have with regard to the president’s proposal at this time,” Mollohan said, adding that many lawmakers worry the plan would jeopardize America’s leadership in space because it lacks specific goals for sending humans beyond low Earth orbit.

“That’s going to be a concern, that the United States has just relegated itself to second place in that area,” Mollohan said.

Holdren said NASA would not abandon plans to fund manned missions to explore the solar system or forfeit U.S. leadership there.

“We have a whole range of technologies that we’re able to pursue if we wind down Constellation, the very large sums of money that were going into that program which were considerably more than foreseen at its inception,” he said. “If the Chinese and the Russians keep on with a trajectory that is based on the old technology, we’re going to leap-frog right past them with an approach that invests in American ingenuity to do better.”

Holdren’s defense relied heavily on data contained in the final report of the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, a White House-appointed panel tasked with evaluating NASA’s manned spaceflight program and potential alternatives to it. Holdren said the panel, led by former Lockheed Martin chief Norm Augustine, concluded that if Constellation “were funded in a manner that could return U.S. astronauts to the Moon before 2025, it would cost between $45 [billion] and $60 billion more between 2010 and 2020” than the Obama administration included in the long-range budget projections that accompanied the president’s 2010 spending request to lawmakers last year.

Rep. C.A. “Dutch” Ruppersberger (D-Md.) said he was aware of Constellation’s funding woes, but characterized the president’s alternative plan as “theory” and said he worries the American public will not be inspired by a vision to taxi astronauts to the international space station and back.

“I haven’t been sold yet,” he said, adding that the Augustine report tells only one side of the story. “I’m willing to work with you but I just want to get some experts and hear these different points of view before I decide where to vote.”

Ruppersberger, who chairs the House Intelligence technical and tactical intelligence subcommittee, said he likes the idea of relying more on the private sector to provide civil and military services in space, but said the administration’s plan to cancel Constellation “came out of nowhere” and questioned whether or not the White House and NASA failed to fully consider the proposal’s security and industrial base implications.

“I’m worried we’re going way too quick with the national security that’s at stake, because if it is the wrong decision then we could really put ourselves in a real bad position,” Ruppersberger said. “We need to be dominant in space.”

Earlier, Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) asked Holdren what it would take to develop a heavy-lift launch capability that could be operational by 2020 and questioned why the president has not spoken publicly about NASA’s new direction, including the long-term goal of sending humans to Mars.

“I think that’s really vital. There’s a lot of concern here, as you can tell, with the direction of the space program, and with the potential loss of our leadership in this area that’s been the source of great pride for the country in innovation and technology,” Schiff said. “And if there is a good case to be made for how this advances those goals, it really will need to be made very forcefully.”

Schiff, whose district includes NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said he is pleased to see more funding for robotic exploration programs in the president’s budget.

“But I also am a great supporter of the manned spaceflight program and share the concerns about the degree and length of time in which we’ll be reliant on the Russians, or anyone else for that matter, [and] the degree to which turning our space program into an international program will potentially result in delays and loss of American leadership in this area,” he said.

Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), who is worried that Constellation's termination could affect residents of his district who work at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, questioned whether the agency is attempting to shut down the development program prior to congressional approval as required by law.

Holdren assured Aderholt NASA is obeying the 2010 law that states NASA cannot cancel or terminate any element of Constellation without a new appropriation from Congress. Earlier in the hearing, he cited a Feb. 19 letter from NASA Administrator Charles Bolden responding to 29 House lawmakers accusing NASA of taking unauthorized steps to slow Ares and Orion development and freeze Constellation contracts.

“They are complying with the law,” Holdren said. “They are asking, because the president’s proposal is to wind down Constellation, they are asking what it would cost to do so.”

Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) accused Holdren of not consulting senior NASA personnel on the decision to terminate the Constellation program.

 “Your associate administrators and field center heads were not even told of the final details of the plan to cancel Constellation until just a couple of days before its release,” he said.

Holdren denied the accusation.

“They were consulted early in the process and during the process about the options, the characteristics of different possibilities,” Holdren said.

Tensions mounted near the end of the hearing when Wolf accused three White House staff members seated behind Holdren of wearing smug facial expressions during Culberson’s final round of questioning.

“I don’t care who you work for,” he said. “I think you really bring a degree of arrogance here that is just almost offensive.”

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