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Being Good Stewards of the Nation's Space Program - excerpt from Science and Technology: The Untapped American Resource - Prepared for Rep. Bart Gordo

Press Release From: Committee on Science, Space, and Technology Democratic Caucus
Posted: Thursday, October 28, 2004

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3. Being Good Stewards of the Nation's Space Program

BUSH ADMINISTRATION GRADE: C-

From Science and Technology: The Untapped American Resource Prepared for Rep. Bart Gordon

The nation's space program has long been a source of pride and inspiration, demonstrating American technological prowess and scientific achievement. Moreover, the application of our aerospace technologies to meet earthly needs has directly benefited our citizenry in innumerable ways1 over the past four decades. That is the good news. The bad news is that over the last three and a half years, our space program has been weakened by inconsistent leadership, ill-advised priorities, and initiatives that lack budgetary and programmatic credibility.

Consider the International Space Station. When confronted with escalating costs in the Space Station program, the Bush Administration chose the easy path: it slashed the Space Station's research budget by 40 percent, undercutting the rationale for building the Station in the first place. It also eliminated the funding for the U.S. Crew Return Vehicle (CRV) - something the U.S. was supposed to provide under the international agreements governing the Space Station partnership. And it eliminated the habitation module and cut the originally planned crew size by more than half - further reducing the Station's usefulness for research.

A year later, the Administration reversed course and said it would build an orbital space plane (OSP) to serve as a U.S. CRV - at a cost that was estimated to be more than five times higher than the CRV program that it had cancelled a year earlier! It sent Congress a budget plan that under-funded the OSP program by some $10 billion over a five-year period. Then it decided that the Russians would supply the CRVs - even though existing law prohibits the purchase of such Russian vehicles by NASA! In sum, the Administration achieved a trifecta: it reduced the Station's research capability, shifted program costs into the future instead of reducing them, and engaged in grossly unrealistic budgeting.

The Space Station situation is symptomatic of the Administration's overall stewardship of NASA and the nation's space program. While the current Administrator was touted as a "bean counter" who would restore fiscal responsibility to the space agency, he has in fact presided over an agency who has now failed to achieve a passing grade on independent audits of its books for two of the last three years. More troubling, NASA's own inspector general has concluded that NASA is not likely to receive a clean audit for the next five years, and both the IG and the GAO have identified a series of problems with NASA's implementation of its financial management system.

On February 1, 2003, the Space Shuttle Columbia was lost in a tragic accident that cost the lives of seven astronauts and grounded the entire Shuttle fleet indefinitely. The Columbia accident investigation board subsequently issued a report that was critical of NASA's handling of the Shuttle program over the last two decades. However, it also focused on the schedule pressure imposed on the Shuttle workforce by management and "stressed from the very top" (i.e., from the NASA Administrator) that helped create the environment that led to the accident. And yet, early on in the planning for returning the Shuttle to flight status, that same NASA management was making very optimistic statements about when the Shuttle would begin flying again. This is not all that surprising. An agency that was once managed by some of the most distinguished engineers and scientists in the nation is now becoming a parking place for inexperienced retired admirals and generals because of the hiring decisions of the Administrator. In January of this year, President Bush announced his space exploration initiative - a human landing on the Moon by 2020 and eventual human missions to Mars - all within a NASA budget that would grow by no more than inflation. However, in subsequent Congressional hearings, it became clear that NASA management could not provide credible cost estimates to achieve the programmatic milestones announced by the President. It also became clear that NASA's other important R&D activities - aeronautics, Earth science, major areas of space science, space communications, and education - were all going to be progressively squeezed to make the budgetary math work. And then, just three months before the Presidential election, the NASA Administrator undertook a sweeping reorganization of both NASA Headquarters and the NASA Centers to conform to the President's exploration "vision", even though there was no Congressional consensus to support NASA's plans.

DEMOCRATS SAY...

We agree that NASA needs a clear mission to guide budget and policy decisions, but we also believe that a vision must be grounded in the budget realities of the Nation. The President's Space Exploration Initiative looks like a blank check which will either require us to add many more zeroes at the end, or we will abandon the effort with no useful results when the full scale of costs become known. NASA's unfortunate history of overoptimistic cost estimates mandates skepticism that the President's vision can be achieved with the resources he proposes to offer.

We also believe that the Initiative as proposed threatens the balance between the human space program and the robotic missions that have revolutionized our understanding of the Universe. Since the beginning of the Space Age, NASA has launched a series of missions which have rewritten astronomy and physics textbooks, showed us the hearts of galaxies, explained the workings of the Sun and even now drive us across the surface of Mars. It can be argued the astronauts were never more valuable when they were rescuing the Solar Max satellite or installing new instruments in the Hubble Space Telescope. Yet in the wake of the President's announcement, NASA proposed to abandon the Hubble and has postponed missions to determine the origins of the Universe even though the National Academies declared these the highest science priorities of the decade. Democrats have worked too long and too hard to achieve this balanced space program to allow NASA's natural tendency to favor human space flight to the exclusion of other priorities.

In the space arena, Congress has failed in its oversight role. The Republican Majority has not asked the hard questions of NASA - on budget costs, on shuttle safety, on station safety - for fear of embarrassing the Bush Administration. We would follow Ronald Reagan's old dictum that one should "trust, but verify." We will go to Mars one day, if only because the history of humanity shows that we always want to go to new places. But the Columbia accident board has shown us that the hardest questions are not the technical issues. What happens inside an organization is equally critical to the success of a risky venture like human space flight. That means Congress must constantly look below the surface, and that cannot be done in a two-hour hearing on an irregular basis. We would ask tough questions, demand the underlying documents which would let us get at answers, and then push for policies that move the Nation towards a sensible human space flight effort.

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