Sean O'Keefe Testifes On NASA's Budget Before the Senate Science, Technology and Space Subcommittee - Part 1

NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe made his second appearance before the Science, Technology and Space Subcommittee of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation to discuss NASA's FY 2003 budget. O'Keefe first appeared before the Committee during his confirmation process in December 2001.

The hearings opened with some short comments by Committee Chair Sen. Ernest Hollings (D-NC). Hollings said "NASA works well in space it has not been working too well on the ground financially. We need to maintain NASA at its full strength.

Subcommittee Chair Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) opened by reading from a prepared statement which is worth repeating here in its entirety since it is a good summarization of the tone and content of these hearings:

"Today the Subcommittee on Science, Technology and Space begins working toward an authorization bill for NASA. I want to begin this discussion by stating clearly that I want a NASA that is the best possible investment - paying dividends as rich as those of the early days of the space program, when names like Apollo and Mercury leapt from the pages of mythology into the stratosphere of cutting-edge science. It is clear that in order to regain the glory of the past and fulfill its mission for the future, NASA first must address several current challenges.

"To start, NASA must first rebuild the Congress's confidence in the agency by getting control of financial management. On March 20, the GAO reported to Congress again that the books at NASA are simply an undocumented shambles. NASA's independent auditors and the General Accounting Office cannot continue to disclaim opinions on NASA's books because not enough backup information exists to confirm or refute the financial information.

I am especially concerned about the International Space Station. When the current design was adopted in 1993, NASA said building the Station would cost $17.4 billion, certainly no more than $2.1 billion per year. Nearly a decade later, NASA has admitted that the cost of completing the Space Station has grown to roughly $30 billion, almost $5 billion more than cost caps imposed by the Congress. Continual cost overruns and failures to estimate costs with any fidelity from year to year have got to stop.

"My colleagues and I will want to look in some detail at the plans for the International Space Station. Cost overruns aside - or perhaps in light of the amount of money that's been spent - Congress certainly wants to work with you to set ambitious criteria for a Space Station to benefit scientific inquiry for future generations.

"These are not problems you created, Mr. Administrator, but they are problems you must solve. It's time to nail down the numbers once and for all. Congress is ready to work with you and give you the tools it will take to get your financial house in order.

"The reason for draining the swamp of NASA's financial morass is more than economic.

NASA's scientific mission depends on it, too. This agency must regain financial credibility with the Congress and with the nation's taxpayers. Unless NASA demonstrates fiscal responsibility, there is not going to be funding for the far-reaching science of tomorrow.

"Congress isn't going to throw good money after bad. But with assurance that the boondoggles of today are behind us, NASA may find the freedom to dream for tomorrow - and the support of the nation to do it.

"I want to recapture the vision of John F. Kennedy's commitment to putting a man on the moon by 1970. Today, it is not enough to endlessly circle the Earth in low orbit. NASA should set the goal of putting a person on Mars and work with Congress to set a date to do it. But the aim must be to reach Mars both safely and cost-effectively, or not at all.

"Mars is nearly 50 million miles away, and the dangerous journey there could take months. A mission to Mars is not an idea for the faint of heart or for the frivolous. Getting there will take daring, it will take courage, and it will take discipline - and the discipline must begin before the first plan is drawn. The discipline must begin today.

"While NASA looks to the future, current scientific projects cannot be allowed to fall by the wayside either. The agency must continue to do what it does well: achieve success in human and unmanned space flight programs.

"As this Subcommittee stressed in its hearing last fall on shuttle safety, the excellence of the Shuttle program must be maintained while research continues on a next generation space vehicle. I want to thank my colleague from Florida, Senator Nelson, for his dedication to that task. The challenge is to keep moving forward with projects already on NASA's plate while repairing the mistakes of the past.

"NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe and I are on the record in agreement that the business of NASA is - or should be - science. In his nomination hearing four months ago, Mr. O'Keefe and I both noted that NASA's research supports the technological advances that drive our nation's economy.

"Administrator O'Keefe, you came to NASA to oversee a period of great transition. Two recent announcements from your agency have offered much hope for the future of NASA and its scientific research and innovation. The new images from the Hubble space telescope show that NASA research still has the potential to illuminate the universe and inspire the world. And your restart of the "Teacher in Space" program indicates that you're ready to inspire the future generations of the scientists, discoverers, entrepreneurs, and astronauts that this nation needs.

"However, much of the other news coming from NASA is less than inspiring, and it is incumbent both upon you and upon this Subcommittee to tackle the many issues facing your agency.

"In the next few months you are due to make several recommendations regarding Space Station research and cost estimates and privatizing the Shuttle. This Subcommittee will look forward to hearing those recommendations.

"I am hopeful that my colleagues and I can work in a bipartisan fashion with you, Mr. O'Keefe, and with the Administration to make some progress toward an authorization bill this year."

Sen. George Allen (R-VA) spoke next. Agreeing with all that Sen. Wyden said, Allen noted NASA's "impressive feats". "My young son was amazed at the pictures from Hubble of the colliding galaxies. He was pointing out to 'Daddie' what these things are."

"We are proud of NASA's past." Allen said "But this hearing is not about the past . It is about NASA's future. You have a daunting mission. As you explore these issues NASA should focus on scientific excellence in aeronautics and space. NASA should be fiscally responsible and needs to be sure that safety is important in all programs."

Allen then focused on aeronautics "According to NASA's Aeronautics Blueprint ("Toward a Bold New Era in Aviation") U.S. aviation research has fallen by 50% from a 50 year peak. Other nations are investing more. Europe now strives to be the world's undisputed leader in aviation in two decades. 25 years ago the U.S. had a 90% market share for commercial aircraft. Now we have a 50% share. This does not bode well for NASA's research centers - or for U.S."

According to Allen "he NASA Space Act of 1958 states that the aeronautical and space activities of the United States shall be conducted so as to contribute materially" to a number of objectives". The Aeronautics Blueprint, according to Allen, cautions that "failure to act risks significant economic and social consequences." He then asked "How is a $58 million decrease in aeronautics in the nation's interest?"

Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) was next and "I want NASA to succeed. My feeling is that a society that stops exploring is one that loses its vitality and vision. NASA is unique it is an exploring agency. NASA is an agency whose mission flies on the edge of new technology. I feel that we need to have a good handle on finances but also accept that this is an agency that embraces, by its very nature, more risks than other agencies. In almost all circumstances you are finding new edges of technology."

Sen. Conrad Burns (R-MT) said ' I want to bootstrap on what Sen. Allen said. I don't think any one makes a better airplane than the United States of America. It all boils down to how well we sell our product."

With regard to research Burns said "we get into terrible turf wars about what is in our state. We dilute R&D whereas other countries concentrate it. We do not get the best use out of the buck. We should look at what FAA does - as other agencies do in aeronautics. We need to concentrate money where we can get the biggest bang for our bucks."

He continued, saying "no other agency captures the imagination of young people to go into science, math, and physics like NASA does. We need to think about how we restructure to get research to be a national priority. The nation knows that if we vacate the idea - that we are not reaching out, pushing the envelope (and the American people accept that) and the risk. We should find a way to restructure because this is a national priority of great importance."

In closing Burns cautioned and encouraged O'Keefe, saying "Once you start down this road you will see the damndest turf war you've seen in your life."

Sean O'Keefe then began to summarize his prepared statement - noting first that he saw the "imperative for lofty objectives. One of the points I would like to raise factors we need to wrestle with is how develop enabling technologies."

O'Keefe spoke of enabling technologies citing his now standard comparison "Our ability to launch and achieve low Earth orbit . We are very pro-ficient at that - but we need to get more e-fficient . After we are in orbit we move along at a pace that is equivalent to what John Glenn traveled over 40 years ago. We need to increase speed and decrease the time it takes to get there."

In an apparent reference to Sen. Wyden's comments about want to see a human mission to Mars, O'Keefe sought to distance himself from a specific objective saying "establishing visionary goals of where we want to go is a laudable objective but we need to work [now] on the enabling technology."

With regard to NASA's fiscal issues, O'Keefe said that he was working for "rapid, aggressive implementation of Integrated Financial Management Program (IFMP) as expeditiously as I know how to do that. The ISS is a manifestation of a larger set of problems."

With regard to the ISS O'Keefe refereed to the 5 points in his prepared statement:

Science: The ISS will be science driven and prioritized by the science that can only be done in the unique microgravity conditions of space. We have assembled a group (REMAP) to review all of this. REMAP will prioritize and rank the science. This effort will be completed by this time next month. That will guide our thinking about how to deploy science on the ISS. We currently have a collection of objectives all of which are marked as "number one". If all of them are ranked as number one, none are number one."

Engineering: This is one incredible feat. A large scale systems integration effort of this magnitude is hard enough to do on Earth. It is much harder to do this 250 miles up at 18,000 mph. Until we get past the U.S. Core Complete configuration all tasks are contained. Between now and February/March 2004 there will be 10 shuttle flights to assemble the ISS. Each mission needs to have previous mission be successful.

Cost: we need to wrestle to ground issue of cost. We are currently engaged in engage in an internal cost estimate which will be complete in several months. We also have an external, independent estimate underway.

International agreements: time has been spent with each of the International Partners to assure them that this configuration is a means to facilitate what the ultimate configuration may look like after 2004.

Space Shuttle: Advanced planning for Space Shuttle and ISS operations to maximize the productivity of on-orbit research and ensure the safety of real time operations.

O'Keefe then moved onto a topic that is of obvious importance to him: Education. "This is, in my judgement, an imperative that we really need to be focused on. First, when you look at the human capital in the aerospace community- we are a very 'mature' workforce. The opportunity for succession is wanting at this stage. We need to push to inspire the next generation that would be the explorers. With regard to Sen. Allen's 11 year old, my 11 year old was equally wowed. We need to make more of this available to classrooms. There are things in this agency that are absolutely fascinating. We have a problem translating this to the K-12 generation. There are [already] so many college programs in place. The area we need to look at is what inspires 11 year olds."

Sen. Wyden chimed in that his 12 year old was also excited about these things. O'Keefe replied that he also has 12 and 15 olds who are also motivated - "that is age group need to focus on" O'Keefe recalled what Gen. Eberhardt from the U.S. Space Command recently said "there are two factors that motivate kids; dinosaurs and space."

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) was next to speak to O'Keefe. "You have uttered some profound words here. This is NASA's vision for the future .. "our mandate is to improve life here" that is visionary. That is where NASA should be heading and I complement you. [But] how do we get to that impressive picture of the future? By implementing NASA's charter. If we can do that NASA, under your leadership will be wildly successful. My little hope and my little prayer for you is that you would get bit by the space bug and that you would be come an extraordinary enthusiast for space program. You have a personal relationship with the Vice President and entree into the White House such that you would be able to marshal the resources you need to accomplish these things."

Nelson continued "needless to say I get a little concerned about marshalling the resources. A $14.2 billion budget in FY 2001, $14.9 billion in FY 2002, and for FY2003 $15.0 billion. In other words - an agency budget that is not only flat - it is less than flat when you consider inflation."

Nelson made note of the "political realities of everyone wanting to cut up a shrinking pie of tax dollars" and the political battles O'Keefe will be facing. "I suggest that NASA has got to have some relief some place. NASA cannot continue to put 10 pounds of potatoes in a 5 pound sack."

"We can't skimp on shuttle safety upgrades. The infrastructure is rusting away at KSC" Nelson said. "The only possible place that I see relief in your budget is to convince the Department of Defense that they need to share some of the cost of SLI (the Space Launch Initiative) over the next 5 years. This would be like "found money" to NASA. I have started to sow these seeds. As we mark up the authorization bill for armed services I am going to try and insert language in the bill that there should be a commission established to study SLI."

"We are now looking at flying the Shuttle to 2020. I want to get DoD and NASA talking. This is a legitimate use of DoD funds. DoD also has an interest in assured access to space. Is it not a reasonable point of serious consideration that a participation in SLI should not be just NASA dollars - but also DOD dollars with NASA managing it."

Sen. Wyden began the question portion of the hearing by making note of a recent news story wherein a CIA report cited evidence that Russia was assisting Iran in the construction of a new long range ballistic missile. "This is disturbing since we brought Russia into ISS program. Can you assure the Senate that Russia is not supporting scientists that support Iran?"

O'Keefe noted that he and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage recently visited Moscow in advance of President Bush's summit later this Spring. " I spent 2 days with my counterparts at Rosaviakosmos - and RSA out at Star City. In the course of discussions with the Foreign Minister and his Deputy the issue of the Iran Nonproliferation Act arose. I cannot confirm the validity of this particular story. Officials [in Russia] are aware and concerned about this and are redoubling their efforts to make sure that [their] technology is not used [in this regard]".

Wyden asked if the agency (NASA) is in compliance with the Iran Nonproliferation Act. O'Keefe replied that he wasn't exactly sure. Wyden replied "I want to know that the agency is in compliance with the Iran Nonproliferation Act." O'Keefe said that he'd check on this and get back to the Committee.

Wyden then brought up the issue of financial management at NASA. Specifically, he referenced the 20 March 2002 audit wherein accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers declined to offer an opinion on the sate of NASA's finances. "I know this [NASA's financial problems] is troubling. We have to do this so that we can take the bold steps. You talk about IFMP, now in its third year of implementation. How will this improve agency's financial tracking?"

O'Keefe replied "this is the number one management priority at NASA .I am implementing it as rapidly as possible. There are 'stovepiped' systems for things. This is an effort to try and pull all of that together. Right now It is a very incremental process."

Wyden replied "when are the stovepipes going to go?" O'Keefe said " the strongest objective of IFMP is to do just that. To make sure than information is used for multiple purposes. That, in turn, breaks down stovepipes that don't communicate otherwise. The faster we do this, the better we will be. I have recruited the best IT talent I can find."

"Last year's audit was a litany of deficiencies" Wyden said. "What are the most serious?" O'Keefe replied that the disclaimed opinion was due to the fact that the auditors could not access the data to back up the financial records "That is flat unacceptable. This does not even resemble modern financial management. We need to use a more corporate way to list costs - both 'investments 'and 'expenses'. "

Wyden replied "NASA has cost estimates that don't even get in the same time zone of final costs. What steps underway here?" O'Keefe replied " you are appealing to the bean counter in me. This is a standard malady confronted by any agency that looks at technological advances - especially at NASA which is quintessentially a cutting edge exploration agency. By definition, everything we do will have a substantial element of risk."

Wyden said that he was "looking forward to hearings in the future where we do not have to talk about accounting. I am interested in 'the vision' - Mars and the exciting [Hubble] pictures. There is no way we will get to that place and to be able to put dreams into reality if you have GAO putting out reports that the agency's books are in a shambles. This is a swamp - a financial morass that needs to be drained."

Sen. Allen opened his questions asking about recent activities with the NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) at NASA Langley Research Center (LaRC). O'Keefe replied that he spent a day at LaRC last week being briefed on the forensic activities being conducted on the composite tail section of American Airlines flight 587 which crashed outside of New York City last Fall. O'Keefe made note of the confidence that has been place din NASA by the NTSB noting that this is " testimony to the competence and expertise [at NASA LaRC] that cannot be found elsewhere."

Allen then asked for O'Keefe to comment on the fact that NASA has cut aeronautics spending by half in the past few years from a high of $1 billion in FY 1998. "Does this budget include sufficient resources to achieve the goals laid out in the Aeronautics Blueprint?"

O'Keefe replied that NASA's previous budgets "included one time efforts that will not be ongoing." Allen replied "it seems that most cuts are in the vehicle system portion of the budget. If we are going to have this 'bold vision' we need to finance this." O'Keefe replied " there is no question that there is a reallocation of resources to focus on RLV efforts. To the specific point of the Aeronautics Blueprint, I will go back and look at this and examine how we come out in the end deliberation this year - and how out operating plan can address this [Aeronautics Blueprint] plan."

Allen closed by asking O'Keefe " do you see a competition with Europeans in the future?" O'Keefe replied "we can be most effective by looking at technology advancement opportunities which by their very nature are very risky. [We need to] look at those things that only NASA can do."

Continued in Part 2

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