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Obama's Science Advisor Grilled by Congress on NASA Plan

Obama's Science Advisor Grilled by Congress on NASA Plan
U.S. President Barack Obama, accompanied by members of Congress and middle school children, waves as he talks on the phone from the Roosevelt Room of the White House to astronauts on the International Space Station, Wednesday, Feb. 17, 2010 in Washington. (Image credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

WASHINGTON ? U.S. President Barack Obama's 2011 NASA budgetrequest was greeted by skeptical and at times angry House appropriators duringa hearing Feb. 24 in which at least one member vowed to obstruct the White Houseplan to scrap NASA's Moon-bound Constellation program.

White House science adviser John Holdren was called totestify before the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommitteeon Obama's $147 billion research and development budget request for 2011, butspent the bulk of the two-hour hearing answering toughquestions about NASA's proposal to abandon a five-year-old plan to replacethe aging space shuttle in favor of developing a commercial crew transportationsystem capable of ferrying astronauts to the international space station.

Holdren, who had testified earlier that day before the HouseScience and Technology Committee, fielded appropriators' questions andcomplaints while NASA Administrator Charles Bolden did thesame at a better-promoted, televised hearing before the Senate Commercescience and space subcommittee.

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

"I just think the way you've gone about it has a degreeof arrogance and I think you're going to have a problem," said Wolf, whosenorthern Virginia district is home to Orbital Sciences Corp., one of a handfulof private firms that stands to benefit from Obama'sproposal to develop commercial crew transportation systems. "I amgoing to do everything I can to stop this and to see if there's a way to kindof look at this thing in a different way."

Members on both sides of the aisle were unimpressed with thelack of detail evident in Obama's $19 billion funding request for the spaceagency, which would add $6 billion to NASA's top-line spending profile over thenext five years to develop commercial crew taxis, increase funding for Earthscience and invest in research and development of heavy-lift propulsiontechnologies that could facilitate manned exploration of deep space. Rep. AllanMollohan (D.-W.Va.), who chairs the panel, said he shared many of theadministration's concerns about Constellation's cost and schedule but tookissue with the failure of the White House to provide more detail about NASA'sproposed change of direction.

"You can expect when you come up to have to flesh outthe rather skinny presentation that we have with regard to the president'sproposal at this time," Mollohan said, adding that many lawmakers worrythe plan would jeopardize America's leadership in space because it lacks specificgoals for sending humans beyond low Earth orbit.

"That's going to be a concern, that the United Stateshas just relegated itself to second place in that area," Mollohan said.

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

"We have a whole range of technologies that we're ableto pursue if we wind down Constellation, the very large sums of money that weregoing into that program which were considerably more than foreseen at itsinception," he said. "If the Chinese and the Russians keep on with atrajectory that is based on the old technology, we're going to leap-frog rightpast them with an approach that invests in American ingenuity to do better."

Holdren's defense relied heavily on data contained in thefinal report of the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee, a WhiteHouse-appointed panel tasked with evaluating NASA's manned spaceflight programand potential alternatives to it. Holdren said the panel, led by formerLockheed Martin chief Norm Augustine, concluded that if Constellation "werefunded 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 projectionsthat accompanied the president's 2010 spending request to lawmakers last year.

Rep. C.A. "Dutch" Ruppersberger (D-Md.) said hewas aware of Constellation's funding woes, but characterized the president'salternative plan as "theory" and said he worries the American publicwill not be inspired by a vision to taxi astronauts to the international spacestation and back.

"I haven't been sold yet," he said, adding thatthe Augustine report tells only one side of the story. "I'm willing towork with you but I just want to get some experts and hear these differentpoints of view before I decide where to vote."

Ruppersberger, who chairs the House Intelligence technicaland tactical intelligence subcommittee, said he likes the idea of relying moreon the private sector to provide civil and military services in space, but saidthe administration's plan to cancel Constellation "came out of nowhere"and questioned whether or not the White House and NASA failed to fully considerthe proposal's security and industrial base implications.

"I'm worried we're going way too quick with thenational security that's at stake, because if it is the wrong decision then wecould really put ourselves in a real bad position," Ruppersberger said. "Weneed to be dominant in space."

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

"I think that's really vital. There's a lot of concernhere, as you can tell, with the direction of the space program, and with thepotential loss of our leadership in this area that's been the source of greatpride for the country in innovation and technology," Schiff said. "Andif there is a good case to be made for how this advances those goals, it reallywill need to be made very forcefully."

Schiff, whose district includes NASA's Jet PropulsionLaboratory in Pasadena, Calif., said he is pleased to see more funding forrobotic exploration programs in the president's budget.

"But I also am a great supporter of the mannedspaceflight program and share the concerns about the degree and length of timein 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 internationalprogram will potentially result in delays and loss of American leadership inthis area," he said.

Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-Ala.), who is worried about joblosses at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in his Huntsville district ifConstellation is terminated, questioned whether NASA is attempting to shut downthe development program prior to congressional approval as required by a law.

Holdren assured Aderholt NASA is obeying the 2010 law thatstates NASA cannot cancel or terminate any element of Constellation without anew appropriation from Congress. Earlier in the hearing, he cited a Feb. 19letter from NASA Administrator Charles Bolden responding to 27 House lawmakersaccusing NASA of taking unauthorized steps to slow Ares and Orion developmentand freeze Constellation contracts.

"They are complying with the law," Holdren said. "Theyare 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 notconsulting senior NASA personnel on the decision to terminate the Constellationprogram.

"Your associate administrators and field center headswere not even told of the final details of the plan to cancel Constellationuntil just a couple of days before its release," he said.

Holdren denied the accusation.

"They were consulted early in the process and duringthe process about the options, the characteristics of different possibilities,"Holdren said.

Tensions mounted near the end of the hearing when Wolfaccused three White House staff members seated behind Holdren of wearing smugfacial expressions during Culberson's final round of questioning.

"I don't care who you work for," he said. "Ithink you really bring a degree of arrogance here that is just almostoffensive."

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Amy Klamper

Amy Klamper is a space reporter and former staff writer for the space industry news publication SpaceNews. From 2004 to 2010, Amy covered U.S. space policy, NASA and space industry professionals for SpaceNews. Her stories included profiles on major players in the space industry, space policy work in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, as well as national policy set by the White House.