(Washington, DC) - An ongoing labor strike, the approaching retirement of the Shuttle program and the challenges of operating and utilizing the International Space Station (ISS) after the Shuttle is retired were among the major issues considered today by the House Science and Technology Committee's Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics.
The purpose of today's hearing was to review the status of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA), Space Shuttle, which is scheduled to be retired upon completion of the ISS at the end of this decade. The hearing also explored the status of the International Space Station, including how the ISS will be supported once the shuttle is retired and how NASA plans to use the ISS.
"We all understand that funding is tight, and that funding for ISS research has to compete with other NASA priorities. However, the nation has invested substantial funds over many years to develop and build the International Space Station," said Subcommittee Chairman Mark Udall (D-CO). "The NASA team has worked hard to make the ISS a reality. It seems to me that we need to ensure that the nation gets an adequate return on that investment."
Members today also questioned NASA on what steps it is taking to ensure that Shuttle processing activities are being conducted safely in light of a workers' union strike at the Kennedy Space Center. Since June 14, approximately 500 members of the International Association of Machinists (IAM) have been on strike in a contract dispute with the United Space Alliance (USA), which operates the Space Shuttle for NASA (USA).
"Today's hearing reinforces one important overall fact: NASA's budget continues to be woefully short-changed," said Rep. Nick Lampson (D-TN), and chair of the Energy & Environment Subcommittee. "The Subcommittee heard specifics about how funding gaps will impede the future of the ISS, which stalls key projects and advances on the ground, and brings us dangerously close to losing our status as the leader of all space programs."
The FY08 budget request for the ISS program is $2.24 billion. While the program is currently in its most challenging portion of the assembly phase, there are other challenges related to the budget request, including depleted reserves through FY08 and a shortfall in the current budget for ISS crew and cargo services to provided needed logistical support to the Station once the Shuttle is retired.
Mr. Tommy Holloway, chair of the congressionally mandated ISS Independent Safety Task Force testified that ensuring adequate post-Shuttle logistics capabilities is a significant concern, cautioning that "inadequate logistics will result in a serious decrease in the utility of the Station and could result in its abandonment."
The need to ensure that the ISS can be utilized productively was a recurring theme in today's hearing.
"The degree to which the space station is utilized productively will determine the ultimate success or failure of the ISS. That is why a number of us have been so concerned about the severe cutbacks in NASA's Space Station research program and budget over the past several years," Udall added. "Those cuts have largely decimated the research community that had planned to use the ISS, with potentially serious implications for the productivity of the ISS as a research facility once it is assembled."
Dr. Paul Neitzel, professor of fluid mechanics at the Georgia Institute of Technology testified that the research cuts could have a significant impact on NASA's ability to carry out its exploration initiative, stating that under the current plan, "The small number of projects being investigated, although relevant to exploration, is inconsistent with the conduct of a robust, safe exploration program."
Finally, Chairman Udall said that he is pleased that NASA is making good progress on its plan to conduct a final Shuttle servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope. After the loss of the Columbia in 2003, those plans were cancelled and an instrument on the telescope lost power, prompting an outcry from the public and the science community. The mission to make repairs and upgrades to Hubble is now slated to fly on Atlantis in September 2008.
Subcommittee Members heard testimony today from Mr. William Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator of the Space Operations Mission Directorate, NASA; Mr. Tommy Holloway, Chairman, ISS Independent Safety Task Force; Dr. G. Paul Neitzel, Professor of Fluid Mechanics, Georgia Institute of Technology; and Ms. Christina Chaplain, Director of Acquisition and Sourcing Management, Government Accountability Office.