Friday, March 28, 2014

Charlie Emboldened

Click the arrow to watch the March 27, 2014 subcommittee hearing on YouTube.

NASA's proposed Fiscal Year 2015 budget this week went before the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology.

It wasn't pretty.

As with most committee meetings in recent years, the two meetings this week resembled the Mad Tea-Party from Alice in Wonderland.

The full committee met on Tuesday March 26 to review the proposed budget for all the government's science agencies. Click here to watch the two-hour hearing. In the committee's crosshairs was Dr. John Holdren, the President's National Science Advisor.

It was quite the spectacle to watch scientifically illiterate members of Congress lecture one of the nation's foremost scientists on subjects ranging from climate change to health care to earth sciences to welfare to the Ice Age.

The panel's subcommittee on space met the next day. The lone witness was NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.

A year ago, with tongue firmly planted in cheek, I suggested that Charlie be granted sainthood by his Episcopal Church for having the patience to put up with this committee's tomfoolery.

That's what government officials do when they appear before congressional committees. They sit there and suffer the slings and arrows, so that the politicians can look good for the home crowd. The real decisions are made behind the scenes, often by committee staffers who remain for years while the politicians come and go.

But this year was different.

A righteous Charlie Bolden stood up to the committee members, reminding them that they were responsible for the current pickle the United States is in for having to rely on Roscomos for International Space Station access while Russia occupies Crimea and intimidates Ukraine.

For years, Bolden's pleas for full commercial crew funding were rejected by members of both parties who wanted to assure that government pork was funnelled to their districts, or to the legacy aerospace contractors who funnelled contributions to their re-election campaigns. Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS) and Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) have been the worst offenders, although Democrats Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and Donna Edwards (D-MD) have also heaped abuse on Bolden and the White House for not favoring their pet projects.

In recent weeks, committee chair Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) has been pushing a human flyby of Mars and Venus in 2021. He claimed this week that such a mission would “electrify” the nation, without offering any evidence to back it up. Smith has not explained how he would pay for it, how the crew would survive two years of lethal doses of radiation, or how they would feed themselves, much less what it is this crew would do other than look out the window. That job has been done for decades by robotic craft taking photos just as good, if not better, than anything humans could film.

Smith berated both Holdren and Bolden this week for not seeing the genius of his proposal. But then they're only science experts. They're not a politician who knows more about science than scientists.

Rep. Brooks, whose district includes Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, berated Bolden and repeatedly hurled false accusations at the administrator, constantly interrupting him and not allowing him to complete his answers. I almost feel sorry for the people of Huntsville, but then they elected this national embarrassment to office so they're responsible for him.

Charlie is used to all this, and it was clear he came prepared to deliver a simple message — our top priority must be fully funding commercial crew so the U.S. no longer relies on Russia for ISS transportation.

Several members continue to insist that Space Launch System is the top priority, even though after four years they've yet to give NASA a mission or destination. Rep. Smith says it's the 2021 flyby, but the rest of Congress has yet to agree. Other members want an Apollo rerun to the Moon, but again the rest of Congress has yet to agree. A year ago, NASA proposed the Asteroid Initiative, but Congress has yet to agree.

They do seem to agree that $3 billion a year should be spent indefinitely on SLS, and any actual purpose is secondary. The reason for its existence is to protect Shuttle-era jobs in the districts of Palazzo, Brooks, and certain other key members of both houses, which is why critics have labelled it the Senate Launch System.

Bolden repeatedly referred to a chart that attempted to present a Grand Unified Theory of sorts for these disparate programs, arguing that commercial crew, ISS and the Asteroid Initiative are necessary to perform human flights to Mars in the 2030s using the SLS.

I'm not sure the argument worked, and I don't really buy it myself, but it was an attempt to create a consensus among politicians who have demonstrated they have no interest in one. They're only interested in themselves.

The bottom line is that, thanks to Vladimir Putin, Bolden finally has some leverage to force Congress into properly funding commercial crew. A November 2013 report by the NASA Office of the Inspector General noted that Congress cut commercial crew funding by 62% in Fiscal Years 2012-2014 from the Obama administration's funding request. This pushed back commercial crew's projected operational date from 2015 to 2017 — a fact Bolden repeatedly noted, even though Rep. Brooks denied it. In the current fiscal year, Congress cut the commercial crew budget by 15% from the administration's request.

We still have a long way to go. The space authorization committees in both houses need to pass a NASA budget, they need to reconcile their versions, and then Congress has to actually pass a budget — a task it's been unable to perform the last few years. Beyond that, the appropriations committees in both houses decide how much money NASA really gets, so we won't know until late in the year if Congress can put aside its pettiness for the national good.

It is an election year, so maybe Congress will behave itself, but don't count on NASA to be a major issue on the campaign trail. Most of the American electorate couldn't care less.

1 comment:

  1. What I'd like to see ... At some point, I'd like to click on NASA.GOV and 93 million other web sites and see Bolden in a five minute YouTube-style video giving a presentation on "Congress has asked NASA for a timeline and a roadmap for furure human space flight. including a manned flight around Mars, using hardware specified by Congress. Here are the steps that we see, from improving life support capabilities to constructing a manned lunar base to flying about Mars and beginning human exploration on that planet's surface... This is the estimate of the costs for such activities ... This is the estimated schedule for what Congress asks of us, based on our current funding. It looks something like 2250 AD but technological advances may allow to shave off a few decades. This concludes NASA's official response to Congress. Thank you for your attention."