House panel resists changes in NASA space program


POSTED: Wednesday, September 16, 2009

WASHINGTON — Members of a key House committee said Tuesday that they were reluctant to change NASA’s current plans for human spaceflight after the space shuttles are retired from service, beyond giving more money to the agency.

“I think that good public policy argues for setting the bar pretty high against making significant changes in direction at this point,” said Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., who is chairman of the Committee on Science and Technology. “There would need to be a compelling reason to scrap what we’ve invested our time and money in over these past four years.”

Gordon’s remarks came during the first congressional hearing on a new report that offers options for the future of astronauts in space.

NASA is developing a new series of rockets to replace the space shuttles, which are scheduled to be retired next year.

The Obama administration has not offered public support for the rockets, which are part of the agency’s Constellation program, and in May convened a panel to review the program.

Norman Augustine, a former chief executive of Lockheed Martin who led the 10-member review panel, encountered a sometimes testy atmosphere in his appearance before the committee on Tuesday.

“I am pretty angry,” said Gabrielle Giffords, D-Ariz., who heads the committee’s Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee.

Giffords said she had been hoping for a detailed evaluation of Constellation and recommendations for how to improve it. Instead, she said, the panel had provided a menu of potential replacements for the program.

“We have a glancing attention to Constellation, even mentioning it in past tense,” she said.

But Augustine said the panel had done what had been requested — provide a list of options, not a preferred recommendation — and noted that the Constellation program was one of the five options offered.

“We believe the existing program is a fine program,” he said.

The panel issued a 12-page summary last week, and Augustine said it would try to complete the report this month.

Committee members agreed with Augustine on a central conclusion of the panel: NASA needs about $3 billion more a year — increasing the spending over the next decade on human spaceflight to $130 billion from $100 billion — or it will not be able to accomplish the goals of Constellation or any alternative program.

Without an increase, Augustine said, NASA could continue to operate the International Space Station and develop some new technology, but it would not get out of Earth orbit for the foreseeable future. “It will be a program that will inspire very few people,” he said.

A smaller increase of $1.5 billion a year was also insufficient, the panel concluded.

In addition, it said that none of the options appreciably shortens the gap between the retirement of the shuttles — when the United States will rely on Russia for transportation to and from the International Space Station — and the development of the Ares I.

The Ares, the first of the Constellation rockets, will not be ready for use until at least 2015, and the panel predicted that the schedule would slip to 2017.

Augustine, who spent two hours before the House committee, will be questioned by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on Wednesday.

Also testifying to the House committee on Tuesday were Michael D. Griffin, the former NASA administrator who stepped down in January with the change in administrations, and Joseph W. Dyer, a retired vice admiral who is chairman of the aerospace advisory panel at NASA.

Griffin agreed that the fundamental issue is money, pointing out that NASA’s budget was cut 20 percent in 1994. In inflation-adjusted dollars, NASA’s budget is lower than it was in 1993. “I think we’re here today because we don’t like how that experiment turned out,” he said.

To cancel Ares I and rely on commercial companies to provide transportation to orbit, a suggestion made by the review panel, would be “risky in the extreme,” Griffin said. “That day is not yet and is not soon.”

Griffin also said that NASA had been much more careful in preparing its cost estimates for Constellation and that the review panel had not taken that into account.

Dyer said that the safety panel did not support extending operations of the space shuttle, another of the options offered by the review panel.

He also said that NASA had not held detailed conversations with commercial companies about what would be necessary to make their rockets sufficiently safe for passengers.