House Committee on Science and Technology Examines FY09 NASA Budget


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(Washington, DC) Today, the U.S. House Committee on Science and Technology held its first hearing to review the proposal for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration's (NASA) Fiscal Year 2009 budget request and NASA's proposed Fiscal Year 2008 Operating Plan. The Committee maintains jurisdiction over the Agency and will be reauthorizing NASA's programs this year.

Committee Members heard testimony from and questioned NASA Administrator Dr. Michael Griffin on a range of issues related to NASA's funding and priorities.

At the hearing, full Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) and Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics Chairman Mark Udall (D-CO) offered the following statements.

Chairman Gordon:

"Good morning and welcome Dr. Griffin. Today's hearing will be Congress's first opportunity to review the President's Fiscal Year 2009 NASA budget request.

I expect that there will be much in that budget request that Members will want to discuss today and in subsequent Committee hearings. Yet the FY 09 budget request is not just a collection of funding levels and program descriptions. Rather, it defines the Administration's priorities for NASA and its vision for what NASA should be doing in the coming years.

In that regard, this budget request--and Congress's disposition of it through the authorizing and appropriations process this year--will in large measure define the state of the space and aeronautics program that will be inherited by the next President. So the stakes are high.

As many of you know, this year marks the 50th anniversary of the dawn of the U.S. space program and the establishment of NASA. It also marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Science and Technology Committee. We--and NASA--were a direct result of the Soviet Sputnik launch, an event that sent shockwaves throughout the American government and the American public. In fact, our Committee was established in part to help define an appropriate American response to Sputnik and to oversee America's fledgling space program.

Now--50 years after NASA's birth--I think that this Committee needs to take a hard look at where NASA is headed, and whether or not the course that the current Administration has set NASA on is an appropriate one...and one that should be followed by the next Presidential Administration, whether it be Democratic or Republican. We need to develop a congressional consensus on what NASA should be doing, and equally importantly, on what level of resources we this nation is willing to commit to NASA.

I thought we had achieved such a consensus in the NASA Authorization Act of 2005, which was passed by Congress and signed by the President. Yet, the Administration's actions since that time unfortunately have not helped to maintain that consensus. In particular, I believe that the Administration has to date failed to provide resources to NASA that are adequate for what it has asked NASA to do and what it agreed to in the Authorization Act.

And that's not just my opinion--if you review our Committee's hearings over the past several years, you will find bipartisan expressions of concern over the mismatch between NASA's tasks and the resources it's been given. We see the impact of that approach to NASA throughout the budget request that we will be reviewing today. Thus, we see an aeronautics program that continues on a downward path, despite clear congressional direction that echoes our belief that NASA's aeronautics R&D activities are critical to our competitiveness, the safety and efficiency of our aviation system, and our quality of life--and despite clear evidence that our current air traffic control system is antiquated and under severe stress.

In the science arena, the situation is uncertain. The good news is that NASA has at last taken steps--consistent with congressional urging and direction--to initiate new Earth science missions recommended by the National Academies in its recent Decadal Survey.

The bad news is that the funding for those new Earth science missions doesn't reflect any new commitment on the part of the Administration to enhancing NASA's overall science program. Instead, funding for those missions will be provided by shifting money from other Earth science research activities as well as from other NASA science accounts in the coming years. In short--a "musical chairs" approach to science funding.

Yet, the successive cuts to NASA's aeronautics portfolio and the uncertain outlook for the NASA science program have not resulted in any corresponding dividends for NASA's human space flight program or its exploration initiative that could be cited as rationales for the Administration's approach to NASA. Quite the opposite. In NASA's exploration program, the FY 09 budget request provides no funds to reduce the looming "gap" in U.S. human access to space once the Shuttle is retired, in spite of widespread concern about its potential impact. Indeed, given the low levels of reserves allocated to the Constellation program over the next several years, it is hard to have confidence even in NASA's stated 2015 delivery date for the Crew Exploration Vehicle--a date five years after the Shuttle is retired.

In addition, NASA's technology program--something that should be the bedrock of an R&D agency--has been progressively whittled away to the point it is largely an afterthought in the FY 09 budget request. And then there is the issue of the "parting gifts" left to the next Administration in the form of unfunded and underfunded requirements in the FY 09 NASA request.

For example, the five-year runout for the Shuttle program that accompanies the FY 09 request contains no money for Shuttle retirement and transition costs past 2010, even though NASA agrees that such funds will be required. Instead, any money needed for Shuttle retirement and transition costs will have to come out of the Exploration account--which itself will already be facing large new funding requirements in 2011 if the lunar program proceeds under NASA's planned schedule.

NASA's five-year budget contains no funding for the replacement of the Deep Space Network, even though NASA concedes it needs to happen if NASA is to have the capability to support all of the important space missions that will be occurring in the coming decades.

Finally, I am concerned that the Administration's five-year budget request does not appear to allocate sufficient funding to meet the International Space Station's utilization and operations requirements after the Shuttle is retired. Indeed, NASA itself identifies ISS cargo and crew transportation as "the greatest program and budget risk" to the ISS program.

I could go on, but I hope my point is clear. NASA and its space and aeronautics research programs are important--important to our standing in the world, important to our nation's scientific and technological foundation, and important to our quality of life.

Dr. Griffin and his team are dedicated and hardworking and represent some of the "best and brightest" in the nation. Yet I am afraid that this budget and the vision for NASA that it represents fails them in several important ways:

It fails to fully exploit and nurture the impressive capabilities NASA has, and it fails to position NASA for a sustained and productive future. Instead I'm afraid that the Administration's budget and vision for NASA simply set the agency up for increased problems down the road.

And most fundamentally, I have to ask whether it is credible to believe that we will be able to successfully carry out the human lunar program proposed by the Administration--while still maintaining a balanced NASA portfolio overall--if the NASA budgetary outlook doesn't improve. If it isn't credible, then we will need to determine whether there are any changes to be made that will still keep us moving forward in a balanced manner under the funding likely to be available to NASA.

I hope that Dr. Griffin will help the Committee to address these issues both today and in the coming months. We need a sustainable and productive space and aeronautics program for America--one that can be embraced by the next President and the next Congress. And that's what I want us to focus on this year as we work to reauthorize NASA. With that, I again want to welcome you to today's hearing, Dr. Griffin, and I look forward to your testimony."

Chairman Udall: "Good morning. I want to join my colleagues in welcoming Administrator Griffin to today's hearing. This hearing marks the beginning of our consideration of NASA's fiscal year 2009 budget request, as well as providing us an opportunity to engage Dr. Griffin on a range of NASA-related issues.

Dr. Griffin, NASA has been in the news in both positive and not-so-positive ways over the last year. In particular, I would note that our Committee has had to ask the Government Accountability Office to analyze air safety data from the National Aviation Operations Monitoring Service (NAOMS) pilot survey because NASA had refused to do so. I am disappointed that we had to take that step, but rest assured that I intend to continue my oversight of this and other issues that need our subcommittee's attention.

Turning now to the FY 2009 budget request, it is clear that NASA faces significant challenges in carrying out the tasks that the nation has asked it to assume--and those challenges have been made all the more difficult by the inadequate NASA budgets that have been sent over to the Hill from the White House over the past several years. I had hoped that this budget request for NASA--which represents President Bush's last budget submission--would have reflected an intention by the Administration to finally address the impact of the previous shortfalls, yet in the main it does not.

The budget request has been described as a "stay-the-course" budget. Unfortunately, that is all too accurate a description.

Thus, this budget request continues the underfunding of the agency that became painfully apparent in 2004 when the White House announced a major human and robotic exploration initiative--including returning American astronauts to the Moon by 2020--while making a virtue of the fact that it was only adding a billion dollars in new money to NASA's budget over the first five years of the Moon-Mars initiative.

Since that time, it has sent over NASA budget requests that have consistently fallen short of what the Administration itself had said would be needed to enable NASA to carry out the exploration initiative and its other core missions. Now, despite the fact that there is a projected 5-year gap in the U.S.'s capability to get its astronauts into space after the Shuttle is retired - and despite the fact that the exploration initiative's Constellation program currently has reserves of less than 8 percent to cover any problems the development program might encounter over the next two years - the Administration has chosen not to request any additional funding for the Constellation program in this latest budget request, despite congressional encouragement from both sides of the aisle to do so.

That's not a great message to send to the NASA and contractor teams that are working so hard to implement the President's initiative. Nor does it send a good signal to the next President, whoever it might be, that the exploration initiative is a priority worth continuing.

What are the other ways in which this NASA budget request "stays the course"?

Well, it continues the practice of marginalizing NASA's aeronautics R&D program, in spite of congressional concern and direction to the contrary over the past several years. It is clear that the nation's aviation system is under severe stress, and NASA research will be needed if we are to move successfully to a next generation air traffic management system while protecting the environment and maintaining safety. The Administration's current approach to NASA's aeronautics enterprise simply is not going to get the job done.

In the Space Operations arena, "staying the course" unfortunately means continuing the practice of leaving unfunded and underfunded liens for the next Administration to deal with--whether it be the costs of Shuttle transition and retirement, Deep Space Network replacement, or logistical support of the International Space Station. That is a troubling approach, given the already over-constrained nature of NASA's outyear budgetary plan.

There is one area, however, where "stay the course" was not followed--at least in part--and that is in NASA's science program. Thus, it appears that NASA did take steps in the FY 09 budget request to attempt to respond to concerns expressed by many in the science community and in Congress. Thus, the budget request contains new starts for high priority Earth Science missions recommended by the National Academies in its recent Decadal Survey, something I strongly support.

In addition, funding is allocated to augment NASA's Research and Analysis activities and to revitalize the suborbital research program--actions that will help train the next generation of space scientists and engineers. In addition, NASA has announced that it intends to undertake an ambitious series of new missions, including JDEM, a Solar Probe, an exoplanet detection mission, a Mars Sample Return mission, a major Outer Planets mission, as well as a significant increase in its lunar science initiative.

It sounds exciting and promising. However, the reality is that no new money is being requested for NASA's science account to carry out all these new initiatives beyond what had previously been assumed--money is simply being transferred between science accounts. That's sounds a lot like the approach the Administration used to pay for the Exploration initiative and human space flight programs--and we see how well that has worked.

In addition, the bulk of the funding requirements for these new initiatives occurs beyond this budget's planning horizon--in short, finding the necessary money will be the task of the next President and future Congresses. I hope that we will be able to undertake at least some of the worthwhile new initiatives being proposed--I am a strong supporter of a robust and exciting science program. But we only have to recall the Administration's Project Prometheus and the JIMO mission to know that bold announcements don't always translate into real programs.

Well, I don't want to belabor the point: It is clear that NASA faces a number of important challenges.

I intend to work hard this year to develop legislation to reauthorize NASA, and today's hearing will provide important input to that effort."

For further information on this hearing or to access testimony, please visit the Committee's website at www.house.gov/science.

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