Lawmakers Press NASA Chief on Budget Priorities

WASHINGTON ---NASA Administrator Mike Griffin returned to the House Science Committee Thursdayto answer a litany of questions lawmakers first asked back in June about theU.S. space agency's new direction.

DuringGriffin's lastappearance before the committee, he assured lawmakers that he'd be ready bySeptember to discuss the agency's plan for returning to the Moon, including thenew spacecraft and launch vehicles it will need to get the job done. He alsosaid he would be ready to describe in some greater detail NASA's plan forcompleting the International Space Station (ISS) and retiring the space shuttleorbiters.

Since thatJune appearance, NASA has rolled out its space explorationarchitecture, declared that it wants to build a six-person capsule capableof trips to the space station and the Moon, and decided to use space shuttlecomponents as the foundation for its proposed Crew Launch Vehicle and HeavyLift Vehicle. NASA also has said itintends to fly 18 more shuttle missions to the space station, a numbersufficient to honor its major commitments to its international partners bylaunching Europe's Columbus science laboratory and the Japanese ExperimentModule.

Griffinreceived an abundance of good will and well wishes from lawmakers during hisJune appearance -- his first as NASA administrator.

"You havestarted very well. You've been bold, you've been making decisions and have setup a process for making decisions that cannot be made now," Rep. DanaRohrabacher, the California Republican in line to become House ScienceCommittee chairman come 2007, said back in June.

Much ofthat goodwill appears to remain. Although lawmakers were at times pointed intheir questions about the feasibility of NASA's plans for completing thestation and expressed skepticism about the affordability of the explorationplan the agency has since laid out, the committee's top Republicans andDemocrats told Griffin he still has their confidence.

"Afterabout six months on the job I want to assure you, you are still our hero,"House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) said at the outsetof the Nov. 4 hearing. "You have retained your candor and you have beenremarkably successful at fulfilling the commitments you have made."

However,Boehlert pulled no punches in his assessment of NASA's budget situation.

"While NASAmay have relatively smooth sailing right now we ignore the clouds on thehorizon at our own peril," Boehlert said. "There is simply not enough money inNASA's budget to undertake all the tasks it is undertaking and maintain thecurrent schedule."

Boehlertsaid he did not see how NASA could fulfill its commitment to complete the InternationalSpace Station, keep the Crew Exploration Vehicle (CEV) development on track fora 2012 debut, and maintain a robust science and aeronautics program with therelatively flat NASA budgets forecast for the years ahead.

"BeforeNASA promises it can accelerate construction of the CEV, complete constructionof the ISS and have worthwhile science and aeronautics programs, it ought to beable to demonstrate where the money will come from and right now it cannot,"Boehlert said.

Rep. BartGordon (Tenn.), the committee's ranking Democrat, said he fully concurred both withBoehlert's praise of Griffin and the chairman's depiction of NASA's budgetarychallenges in the years ahead.

Griffinsought to assure lawmakers that NASA has budgeted adequately for the CrewExploration Vehicle. NASA is seeking $1.9 billion for the CEV for 2006, $785million more than it had been seeking when it sent Congress its budget requestin February.

Griffinalso testified that he intends to spend upwards of a "half a billion dollars"in the coming years to "subsidize" development of commercial systems capable ofdelivering cargoand potentially people to the space station cheaper than NASA could using theCEV.

WhenGriffin said that keeping CEV development on track would be a top priority,Gordon said the commitment should serve as a warning to other NASA programsthat their budgets will suffer if CEV needs more money than expected.

NASA'sbiggest budget problem by far, at least in the near term, is the space shuttleprogram.

Over thenext five years, according to recent internal estimates, NASA needs as much as$5.6 billion more than currently budgeted to accomplish the 19 shuttle flightsit intends to make before retiring the orbiter fleet in 2010. Most of thatshortfall is the result of a five-year budget plan that forecast a $4.8 billiondecline in shuttle spending between 2006 and 2010.

Griffin,testifying that NASA is working hard to find savings within the shuttleprogram, would be no more specific about the space shuttle budget shortfallthan to say it is between $3 billion and $5 billion.

The shuttleis not NASA's only budget problem.

HurricaneKatrina damaged NASA's Stennis Space Center in Mississippi and the MichoudAssembly Facility outside New Orleans, setting back preparations for the nextspace shuttle mission. NASA's cost estimate for recovering from HurricaneKatrina is $760 million. The White House supplemental request includes only$325 million for NASA and leaves it unclear whether a second hurricane reliefsupplemental, due in May, will request the balance of what NASA needs.

Facing $1billion in cost growth on the James WebbSpace Telescope, NASA has decided to slip the launch date two years to 2013rather than scale back the telescope scientific capabilities.

NASAalready has made some cuts to address these budget problems.

Spending onspace station research is being cut in half heading into 2006.

The Project Prometheusnuclear power and propulsion program, once a major initiative, has been reducedto a low-level research effort. Its 2005 budget of $430 million shrinks to $100million in 2006, all but $10 million of which will be used to pay closeoutcosts on canceled contracts.

Griffincaught some flak for the life sciences cuts, particularly from committeeDemocrats Reps. Mark Udall (Colo.) and Michael Honda (Calif.). Griffin said thelife sciences cuts are necessary in light of NASA's new direction.

On thetopic of sending a shuttle to service the HubbleSpace Telescope -- a program important to many lawmakers including Udall andhis Boulder-area constituents -- Griffin had greater assurances to offer.

Griffin hassaid consistently since his confirmation in April that a final decision onservicing Hubble will be made after NASA's second post-Columbia shuttlemission. But he left lawmakers with little doubt about the space agency'sintentions.

"Frankly,it is my highest priority for the shuttle program," Griffin said.

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Editor-in-Chief, SpaceNews

Brian Berger is the Editor-in-Chief of SpaceNews, a bi-weekly space industry news magazine, and He joined SpaceNews covering NASA in 1998 and was named Senior Staff Writer in 2004 before becoming Deputy Editor in 2008. Brian's reporting on NASA's 2003 Columbia space shuttle accident and received the Communications Award from the National Space Club Huntsville Chapter in 2019. Brian received a bachelor's degree in magazine production and editing from Ohio University's E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.