House hearings on NASA and its budget challenges

Two hearings on Capitol Hill yesterday covered, or at least referred to, NASA’s current budget situation, although neither appeared to make any breakthroughs, and other developments suggested that, if anything, the agency’s budget prospects may be worsening.

The Commerce, Justice, and Science subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee conducted a hearing on oversight of NASA and the NSF, with NASA inspector general Paul Martin as one of the witnesses. In his prepared testimony, Martin mentioned his warning to Congress last month about NASA being forced to spend money on Constellation systems that will not be continued under the plan laid out in the agency’s new authorization act. He also warned about cost overruns on the James Webb Space Telescope and finding the money for the additional shuttle flight included in the authorization act, according to Nature News’s summary of the hearing. The subcommittee’s chairman, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), and others did ask about overlap between Earth sciences research performed by NASA and those by other agencies, but Martin said that was a policy issue he could not address.

While the subcommittee was examining NASA, the chairman of the full committee said more budget cuts would be coming. Rep. Hal Rogers (R-KY) issued a statement Thursday saying he would increase the budget cuts in the committee’s planned FY11 continuing resolution to $100 billion. The committee’s plans earlier this week included $74 billion in cuts, $58 billion in non-security discretionary programs, but some fiscal conservatives wants to see that level increased to the $100 billion previously sought by House GOP leadership. “Our intent is to make deep but manageable cuts in nearly every area of government, leaving no stone unturned and allowing no agency or program to be held sacred,” Rogers said in the statement. No specific details about how the committee will make those additional cuts–including how much for NASA overall, or to specific programs–have been released.

Meanwhile, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee held its organizational meeting Thursday and released its oversight plan, which covers the portions of NASA and other agencies it will be overseeing. Members of the committee also made plans to attend this month’s launch of the shuttle Discovery, with some advice from the committee’s ranking member, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX): “I just want everybody to know that the schedule is frequently changed because of weather,” she said, according to Florida Today. “Don’t go and be disappointed if you go and it doesn’t take off.”

The committee’s new chairman, Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX), did make one interesting comment the Florida Today article picked up on. “My goal is to keep our position in space, keep our leadership in space and keep our national and international partners,” he said. “I’m not urging anybody to go to Mars right now or back to the moon, or any place when people can’t go to the grocery store. The economy has to be good. But we’ve got to continue to work toward it and plan for it.”

Hall made a very similar comment later Thursday at a Space Transportation Association reception in his honor. “Space is in trouble,” he said in brief remarks, mentioning in passing proposed budget cuts by House appropriators. “We have to preserve our position in space. We just can’t let it slip away.”

“I don’t know what we really want to do. I want to go to Mars someday and I want to go back to the Moon someday but I don’t think we want to go back when our people can’t go to the grocery store,” he said. “That means that maybe we can’t go in this economy but we have to keep working towards it. Let’s keep planning for it, and let’s keep encouraging people to go, whether it’s commercial or otherwise.”


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