AIP FYI #118: Doing Too Much With Too Little: Sobering Hearing on the Future of NASA


The American Institute of Physics Bulletin of Science Policy News

Number 118: December 7, 2007

"I don't like it. I consider it to be unseemly in the extreme, and unwise strategically for the United States to be dependent on any other nation for any other thing. I could not be more clear on that. This is where we are, and I am doing the best I can to plot our course out of it. I did not get us into this position. . . . If you think I like it, you would be wrong."

These were the words of NASA Administrator Michael Griffin at a very sobering hearing of the Senate Space, Aeronautics, and Related Sciences Subcommittee. Subcommittee Chairman Bill Nelson (D-FL) convened this hearing last month on the future of NASA, focusing on the completion and utilization of the space station. The discussion centered on the scheduled retirement of the space shuttle in 2010, five years before the U.S. will have a replacement craft. During that time, American crews will be dependent on the Russian Soyuz for transportation to the station, supplemented, perhaps, by yet-to-be-built U.S. commercial space craft.

A lack of sufficient funding is the basis for the intractable problems discussed at this hearing. Funding decisions made by previous administrations that were sustained by previous Congresses, Griffin explained, have put NASA in a position where it will not have a replacement for the space shuttle when it is retired by the "hard date" of September 30, 2010. With considerable station assembly remaining (as well as a Hubble mission), the two-shuttle fleet will have to make four flights every year (a total of 13 flights) - a schedule that allows only five months for slippage. Griffin said it would cost $2.7 billion a year to keep the shuttle flying past its scheduled retirement date, money that the agency needs for the replacement craft. Chairman Nelson is also concerned about safety, reminding Griffin that "schedule pressure" was a major contributing factor to the loss of two shuttles and their crews.

"This is often a discussion that is down in the weeds," said Nelson, who is very troubled by the necessity of buying seats on the Soyuz for five years for access to the $50-$60 billion space station. Nelson characterized this as an "enormously perilous plan," given the uncertainty about future relations with Russia. He raised the prospect of perhaps 5,000 Kennedy Space Center employees being laid off while the U.S. pays Russia for back-up transportation on the Soyuz. Replied Griffin: "I don't think it's a good back-up plan either. It's the only one of which we can avail ourselves."

Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (TX) is the subcommittee's Ranking Minority Member, and both she and Nelson commented that their positions on NASA are identical. Both are concerned that the space station will not be fully utilized. They lamented how a particle detector, the $1.5 billion Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS), is stranded on Earth because only station components and spare parts can be transported on the remaining shuttle flights. Hutchison pressed for a solution, with Griffin saying that one of the expandable vehicles now being constructed in Europe or Japan could be used to transport the AMS. This would involve reworking the AMS so that it could fit in one of the new vehicles, which would cost, including the vehicle itself, around $400 million. Leaving scientific payloads on the ground in order to complete the station was, Nelson commented, "Almost like cutting off your nose to spite your face."

Nelson and Hutchison want to reduce the five year gap between the shuttle's scheduled retirement and the replacement Ares I rocket - Orion spacecraft system, now scheduled to be ready by March 2015. Griffin told them that the earliest a replacement system could be ready is September 2013, absent a "crash program." It would cost $2 billion to shorten the schedule by two years. Hutchison noted that the effort to increase NASA funding by $1 billion in the FY 2008 appropriations bill (see apparently has been rejected in the final version of the legislation. Hutchison said she would work with the authorizing and appropriations committees to "look at next year's budget," using the word "perhaps" to describe the likelihood that the money could be added. She also said that perhaps offsetting reductions could be made in other NASA programs, adding "I don't know" about the feasibility of that strategy.

This hearing again made obvious what has been revealed in other hearings: NASA does not have the money to do what Congress, the Administration, and the American public expect. As Griffin told Chairman Nelson: "Sir, I don't want to leave this hearing or this committee with the impression that we are in a good position. We are not."

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
The American Institute of Physics
(301) 209-3095

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