Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Now Hear This

Click the arrow to watch the Senate space subcommittee hearing, “From Here to Mars.”

Last week while I was in Washington, D.C., three space-related hearings were held on Capitol Hill. I didn't attend any of them, much as I would have liked, but all three are now archived on my YouTube channel if you want to watch.

Of the three, I recommend From Here to Mars, which nominally was about human spaceflight to the Red Planet, but actually touched on a number of subjects, including the International Space Station and commercial space. Near the end, at the 1:38:30 mark, Senator Bill Nelson asks Jeffrey Manber of Nanoracks about the economic viability of commercial space. Mr. Manber replies that the January 2014 decision by the White House to extend the ISS to 2024 — pending congressional approval — has helped his company attract business that was going to China. He says that China is marketing its new space station by decade's end to customers who want to conduct microgravity research. Under current policy, the ISS is scheduled to end in 2020, about the time China's new station would be operational.

The conversation underscores the reality of China's human spaceflight program. Despite claims by politicians such as Space Coast representative Bill Posey (R-FL) and outgoing House Appropriations space subcommittee chair Frank Wolf (R-VA) that China's space interests are military, Mr. Manber's comments suggest they are economic. China intends not to conquer the Moon, but to seize the economic high ground in low Earth orbit. Ending ISS to transfer those funds to the Space Launch System would unilaterally surrender The New Economy, as I called it in a September 2012 column, to China.

Speaking of Rep. Wolf, in an April 8 House Appropriations space subcommittee hearing he spent three and a half hours grilling poor NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden about a range of allegations. Wolf was aided by Rep. John Culberson (R-TX) and Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), two fierce protectors of Space Launch System. These members have disparaged the commercial crew program, and Wolf went so far as to falsely claim that his committee had fully funded commercial crew when the record is clearly the opposite. A November 2013 NASA Office of the Inspector General report found that Congress had cut the commercial crew program by 62% over Fiscal Years 2011-2013 from President Obama's requests. Wolf claimed that because Congress had given NASA the money Congress wanted, it was fully funded, even though Congress repeatedly cut the program from the President's request. This resulted in extending NASA's reliance on Russia for ISS access to at least 2017.

And if all this sounds like weasel-words to you, it should come as no surprise that Wolf, Aderholt and Culberson are all trained lawyers.

The final hearing was the April 9 House Space subcommittee markup of the Fiscal Year 2015 proposed NASA budget. It was a quick 20-minute meeting devoid, thankfully, of any melodrama. This committee determines authorized spending levels, while appropriations determines how much an agency actually gets.

The Senate authorization and appropriations committees need to do their thing too, and later this year both houses should reconcile their versions into a final bill that goes to the President. For those hoping for a veto, keep in mind that the NASA budget typically is buried in a massive document that contains the budget for most non-defense agencies, and because the President has no line-item veto under the Constitution he pretty much has to accept all or nothing.

This assumes, of course, that Congress is actually capable of passing a budget, unlike last fall when the budget stalemate brought the government to a standstill.

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