WASHINGTON — In what was likely one of his last appearances before Congress, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden defended his agency's 2017 budget request against now-familiar criticism regarding spending levels and priorities.
Bolden, testifying before the space subcommittee of the House Science Committee March 17, said the $19 billion the administration requested for NASA in its fiscal year 2017 request was not intended to be a deliberate cut over the $19.3 billion the agency received in the final 2016 omnibus spending bill last December.
"I am not advocating a cut to NASA," Bolden said in response to questions about the agency's budget request from subcommittee chairman Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas). "We are advocating a $19 billion budget and, to be quite honest, the reason it wasn't $19.3 [billion] was because we had no idea that the '16 budget was going to be $19.3. We were all startled — pleasantly — to receive a $19.3 billion budget from the Congress."
That final 2016 appropriations bill was released while the administration was in advanced preparations for its 2017 budget request. NASA had requested a little more than $18.5 billion in its 2016 request, and House and Senate appropriations bills developed prior to the omnibus spending bill did not offer additional funding for NASA.
"I always request more money than we get," Bolden said later in the hearing. "Had we known that the Congress was going to appropriate $19.3 billion, I would have been comfortable going in and asking for even more than we asked for."
Bolden, testifying for the third time in a week, faced similar questions about NASA's budget request from committee members. That included criticism from both Republican and Democratic members about reductions in spending for the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft.
"This proposed budget continues to tie our astronauts' feet to the ground and makes a Mars mission all but impossible," said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the full committee.
"Frankly, I'm a little bit puzzled by the déjà vu we're experiencing with the proposed reductions to the SLS and Orion programs," said Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), ranking member of the space subcommittee, a reference to similar reductions proposed in previous years' budgets.
Bolden, as he did in previous hearings, said that the administration's request supported a first crewed SLS/Orion mission no later than 2023, but with the possibility of launching as soon as 2021. Bolden, though, sought to downplay an earlier launch for that mission.
"I want to get people away from focusing on an earlier date, because that does bring concerns about safety," he said, citing concerns raised by the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel in its report earlier this year. "2023 is a great date."
Some members also criticized reductions in planetary science spending versus increases in NASA's Earth science program, as well as the use of mandatory funds to get around discretionary spending caps, issued raised in previous hearings by Senate appropriators March 10 and House appropriators March 15.
The hearing was also one of the last times Bolden is expected to testify before Congress. At the hearing, as at previous ones, Bolden mentioned that this budget request is "likely my final budget," an indication that he does not plan to remain in office when a new administration takes office next January.
Members used the hearing to heap accolades on Bolden. "Let me compliment Administrator Bolden, because I think he is a committed public servant. I think he is doing the best job anybody could do under the circumstances," Smith said. "I have a hunch that if he were writing this budget, it might vary slightly from the administration's proposed budget."
Bolden, while accepting the praise, also took ownership of the budget proposal. "I want to make sure my position is not mischaracterized," he said. "This is my budget."
"Then I'll have to retract all those nice compliments," Smith joked in response.
This story was provided by SpaceNews, dedicated to covering all aspects of the space industry.
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Jeff Foust is a Senior Staff Writer at SpaceNews, a space industry news magazine and website, where he writes about space policy, commercial spaceflight and other aerospace industry topics. Jeff has a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and earned a bachelor's degree in geophysics and planetary science from the California Institute of Technology. You can see Jeff's latest projects by following him on Twitter.