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House Science Committee Chairman Delivers Speech to Space Shuttle Suppliers

Press Release From: House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology
Posted: Tuesday, February 24, 2004

WASHINGTON, D.C. - House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) today delivered the following speech to the Sixth Annual Space Shuttle Suppliers Network meeting:

It's an honor to appear before you today, and I'm especially pleased to be with a group that includes so many firms from upstate New York.  I'll be meeting with the companies from my District tomorrow, and I know most of you will be meeting with your representatives.

Those visits are important because Members of Congress need to understand that the space program creates jobs and touches lives throughout the country, not just in a few areas that are known for their space facilities.  In my own area, NASA not only helps create jobs through the Shuttle program, it helps fund research at the Air Force's laboratory in Rome, and it funds research and education programs related to remote sensing at Cayuga County Community College, among other activities.  A wide range of NASA programs affect my area.

Your visits are also important because they help remind all of us what an engineering marvel the Space Shuttle is.  At a time when we're necessarily focused on what needs to be fixed in the Shuttle program - and obviously changes need to be made both to the vehicle and to the organization - at such a time, it's easy to forget just how miraculous the Shuttle is. 

Repeatedly flying in and out of the Earth's atmosphere is no mean feat, and it requires constant vigilance on the part of a wide range of individuals and firms.  You are all to be congratulated for your work. 

You've been so good at it that Congress and the public began to forget what an inherently risky proposition the Space Shuttle is.  In your visits, I hope you remind folks like me just what you're up against in returning the Shuttle to flight.

But presumably you didn't come here to listen to me - or anyone else - talk about what you do; I assume you want me to talk about what I do, and how that could affect you.  And, as Chairman of the House Science Committee at this pivotal point in NASA's history, what I have to do is help determine the future direction of the nation's space program.  That is a daunting task, every bit as challenging in the policy world as your tasks are in the world of engineering.

So let me take a few minutes to explain my current thinking on the President's proposed exploration initiative.  As many of you may know, at this point I count myself among the firmly undecided on the proposal.  As I said at our Science Committee hearing with Administrator O'Keefe on February 12, I am "in a quandary."  I have lots of questions, and I have concerns that pull me in many directions. 

I will have to come to a decision soon, but I'm just not there yet.  I don't think that's so terrible.  Taking time to make decisions about a complex, multi-billion dollar proposal doesn't seem like a bad approach.  So let me review some of the issues I'm weighing.

To start, I have to say that the President deserves enormous credit for doing what many of us had been calling for - laying out a clear vision for the space program, making tough choices, and providing a plan that does not rely on Apollo-like spikes in spending.

Now Congress and the American people need to decide if they share that vision, agree with those choices, accept the spending estimates and are willing to provide the money needed to move forward.  I'm going to spend most of my time today talking about those last two items - the ones related to spending - because I think they need to be sorted out further to fully evaluate the vision.

Spending estimates for any far-reaching plan are necessarily riddled with uncertainty.  But for a full and open debate, the range of that uncertainty needs both to be narrowed as much as possible and to be made explicit.  That has not happened in this case, and in fact, NASA has widened the sense of uncertainty in the way it has been answering, and in some cases not answering, reasonable questions.

Let's begin by looking at the Shuttle program - the program that obviously is of most concern to you.  At first blush, the President's proposal terminates the Shuttle program in 2010.  That is a wise decision.  There is simply no way to affordably fund new initiatives without tapping the money now consumed by the Shuttle program. 

Moreover, it is time to develop a safer, more efficient, more up-to-date, more versatile vehicle.  Finally, the White House was simply and understandably unwilling to spend the billions necessary to recertify the Shuttle to fly after 2010 - a requirement laid down by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board and accepted by NASA.

But it turns out that the Shuttle decision is a little more fluid than it first appears.  NASA says the Shuttle will continue to fly until the construction of the International Space Station is completed, and 2010 is simply the target date for that milestone.

Can the Station be completed by 2010?  That seems like a stretch.  As we all know, the Shuttle now is not scheduled to resume flight until at least next March.  (That's a decision I applaud, by the way.  Administrator O'Keefe has kept his word that safety and safety alone will determine when the Shuttle launches again.)  That's already a delay in the schedule on which the 2010 date was developed. 

What's the schedule beyond that?  NASA hasn't decided yet.  But NASA has indicated that the assumption is that five flights will go up each year.  That's more than Members of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board have said is prudent; some of them have suggested a limit of four with existing resources.  And, of course, the schedule assumes that every flight will go off without a hitch - hardly our most recent experience.

So what's going to happen in the not unlikely event that Station completion is delayed?  How long will the Shuttle fly without being recertified?  How much money will the delay cost?  How will NASA manage its workforce and how will you be able to retain your workforce if there is a prolonged period of uncertainty?  We need to have a better sense of how these questions might be answered.  And I should note that problems with the Shuttle are not the only possible sources of delay in completing the Station.

There are also questions about the Station itself.  The President wisely has proposed scrapping the existing research agenda for the Station and developing a new agenda focused on biological questions that we need to solve to keep astronauts in space for long periods of time.

What will that agenda be?  NASA is just starting to develop it.  How much will it cost?  Well, there's a number in the budget, but it's hard to cost out a program that doesn't even exist as an idea yet.  Will it conduct research that can only be done in space?  Again, hard to say.  Radiation research can be conducted on Earth, and it's not clear what kinds of gravitational experiments can be done on the Station. 

Will the public or the astronauts themselves object to research in which astronauts are, in effect, being used as human guinea pigs?  It's hard to know without knowing the nature of the research.  We don't have as much data as we might on space biology because astronauts have objected in the past to sharing medical information. 

Will the Space Station remain in operation long enough to draw conclusions from whatever research agenda is assembled?  Again, too soon to tell.  NASA's charts indicate that U.S. participation in the Space Station will cease in 2016, but NASA has said that such a date is far from firm.  Given how much NASA funding goes to the Space Station - although admittedly those numbers will change once construction is complete - uncertainty about how long we will be funding the Station is another big financial question mark in the exploration proposal.   

I could go on like this about a whole range of aspects related to the exploration initiative, and indeed the Committee staff is engaged in conversations with NASA on these kinds of questions quite literally on a daily basis.  I'm not raising these questions to take "pot shots" at the proposal.  As I said earlier, no one can reasonably expect such questions to be answered with certainty.  But I think these are questions that need to be asked before one endorses spending billions of the public's money over at least two decades, and they need to be answered with more than a shrug.

Let me move away from specific questions related to technological aspects of the proposal and talk about a couple of more general concerns.  They're easy to summarize - funding for the exploration initiative necessarily competes for funding with other valuable programs in NASA and with other valuable federal programs.  Especially when we are in what looks to be a years-long period of austerity, one has to fund priorities.  Is exploration a high enough priority to be funded right now?

I don't know.  I certainly wouldn't want to see humans giving up the dream of space flight.  Indeed, our Committee just passed legislation that will soon be taken up by the full House, that will encourage and facilitate the entry of the private sector into the human space flight business.  But how high a priority is funding a new human space flight initiative at NASA right now?  I'm not sure.

The White House has been careful not to characterize the exploration initiative as a science program, per se.  NASA hasn't always been as careful.  But one of my primary questions is: Will funding this initiative rather than other programs move science forward or hold it back?

Most of NASA's currently planned robotic missions will continue as part of the exploration initiative.  But some other space science projects, including some designed to explore the most fundamental questions about the universe, have been deferred or cancelled.  (I'm not even talking about the Hubble mission, which was not cancelled for budgetary reasons.  Let me just say that I think Congress will continue to review that decision.)

NASA's earth science budget - devoted, after all, to exploring the one planet on which our survival actually depends - is cut to pay for the initiative.  And those cuts come at a time when NASA satellite data is more needed than ever to resolve questions related to global climate change. 

NASA's aeronautics budget, which has been limping along as it is, is basically flat funded to pay for the initiative.  Are these the right priorities?  We all need to think about that some more.

Also, NASA's budget will be increasing at a time when all other civilian, domestic discretionary spending is being held - at least in the President's request - to an increase of just one half of one percent; that's less than inflation.  Is NASA our top spending priority?  And NASA competes for its appropriation with such big-ticket items as housing, veterans programs, and environmental protection.  It also competes with the National Science Foundation, which Congress has wanted to double.  So, this is an especially tough time for the President to have come forward with such a conspicuous increase for NASA.

I think by now you can get a sense of the issues I'm wrestling with.  My issues beg a number of other questions.  Here's an obvious one:  If not the President's proposal, then what?  We can't maintain the status quo indefinitely; that's why the Administration began its worthy process to rethink the space program.  Deciding what's next will obviously be part of my deliberations, but I'm not prepared to outline any alternatives at this point when I'm still deciding whether to endorse the President's proposal.

Of course, I'm just one Member of Congress.  I have a special responsibility as Chairman, but I still need to convince 217 other Members of the House to go along with me if I want to get anything done - or keep something from being done. 

What's Congress as a whole going to do?  It's anybody's guess at this point.  The proposal hasn't received a warm welcome over all, but it's very early in the budget season.  The "handicappers" are all assuming that Congress won't be able to complete fiscal 2005 appropriations before the election.  My hope is that the Science Committee will report out, and the House will pass, a NASA authorization bill that will guide the appropriators, but it's early in the year to handicap that process, too. 

One possibility, as always - not one I'm recommending - is that Congress just punts.  NASA could get just enough money for FY05 to do some additional thinking to give further shape to the initiative and some of its key elements, but not so much as to be interpreted as a "full steam ahead" signal.  As a conscious choice, that kind of budget might not be a bad idea; as the best result to come out of a political stalemate - a "kick the can down the road" approach, I think it would be unfortunate. 

But for now, I'm going to have to kick the can down the road a little longer myself.  That's the only way to find out what's in it and what effect it might have on other objects "in the roadway."  I'll be looking for guidance from all of you as I deliberate.

Deciding the future of human space flight is literally an awesome responsibility.  The heavens continue to inspire awe in all of us.  They have never given a very clear answer about how to approach them.

Thank you.                   

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