Click the arrow to watch the February 25, 2010 House Science Committee hearing.
On February 1, 2010, the Obama administration released its proposed Fiscal Year 2011 NASA budget.
The most controversial proposal was to cancel Constellation, a project that was years behind schedule and billions of dollars over budget.A July 2006 Government Accountability Office audit concluded that Constellation lacked a sound business case. Three years later, an August 2009 GAO Audit repeated the warning:
NASA estimates that Ares I and Orion represent up to $49 billion of the over $97 billion estimated to be spent on the Constellation program through 2020. While the agency has already obligated more than $10 billion in contracts, at this point NASA does not know how much Ares I and Orion will ultimately cost, and will not know until technical and design challenges have been addressed.
The Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee report issued in October 2009 concluded that Ares I would not deliver crew to the International Space Station until at least 2017, and perhaps 2019. Yet Ares I would be funded by deactivating the ISS in 2016, meaning Ares I would have nowhere to go.
Although on paper Constellation was to evolve an Ares V booster to send people back to the Moon by 2020, in the real world Ares V wouldn't fly until at least 2028 — and there was no budget for a lunar lander to take the crew to the surface.
The report's executive summary began with these words:
The U.S. human spaceflight program appears to be on an unsustainable trajectory. It is perpetuating the perilous practice of pursuing goals that do not match allocated resources.
So the Obama administration proposed cancelling Constellation. The savings would be used to extend the International Space Station through 2020, to fund a commercial crew program to transport astronauts to the ISS, and to invest in new launch technologies.
The members of the House and Senate space subcommittees were outraged — primarily because some of them represented districts, or came from states, that had Constellation-related contracts. Others appeared to sincerely believe the rhetoric that NASA is a major engine for American technological innovation. That assumption was questioned in 1977 by the U.S. Comptroller General, and is still questioned in the modern era.
Five years ago today, the House Science Committee held a hearing to discuss the Obama proposal released three weeks before. For more than two hours, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden was the target of accusations and distortions. Many of them falsely claimed that the Administration had proposed the end of U.S. human spaceflight. In reality, the Administration proposed cancelling a boondoggle program to replace it with one that introduced competition and innovation to reduce the cost and open space to the private sector, so more people could go into space.
Some panelists proposed that Constellation be saved by increasing its annual budget by billions of dollars — billions that, conveniently, would be spent in their districts.
If you want to watch the above video, see if you can count how many times the words “jobs” or “workforce” are uttered, which will give you a good idea of what all the outrage really is about.
Here are some of the more apocalyptic claims by those on the panel ...
This hearing is intended to help us understand the rationale for such a substantial change in direction from the approach of previous authorizations. In that regard, Administrator Bolden, there are a number of questions that I hope that you will be able to address. For example, a feature of this proposal, and one that has not garnered much support on the Hill, is a plan to rely on as yet to be developed commercial crew transportation systems with no government backup system. Leaving aside the issue of safety for the moment, do you have concrete evidence that you can provide us that shows that there will be sufficient non-NASA commercial crew transportation markets to keep these companies viable, or is NASA going to be on the hook to do whatever it takes to keep them in business since NASA will have no other means of getting into orbit?
— Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN)
I am deeply troubled by the future viability of America's human spaceflight program. On the eve of completing the International Space Station and retiring the Space Shuttle, I cannot understand how the Administration can propose such an ill-conceived decision to cancel the Constellation program without providing a compelling alternative plan with measurable goals and adequate resources. This budget proposal, relying as heavily as it does on the unproven capabilities of a nascent commercial space industry, contains very few details. At worst, I'm afraid its reliance on commercial is unfolded (sic — unfounded?!), and as a consequence it not only threatens our leadership in space and our utilization of the International Space Station, but it also risks the loss of much of our aerospace industrial base and our highly skilled work force.
— Rep. Ralph Hall (R-TX)
Read in absentia by Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX)
Rep. Pete Olson's district includes neighborhoods where Johnson Space Center employees live. Image source: World News.
I've got a couple concerns and questions I'd like to ask you. One of them is, sort of the process with which this decision was made. Because, if you read some media reports, and hear some things in the community, it seemed to be made by a very small cabal, for lack of a better term, of people here in Washington, D.C. I know for a fact that no one at the Johnson Space Center was consulted about the decision to terminate the Constellation. I particularly want to make sure that you were involved in that decision. So I ask you ... I mean, this is the largest cut in the President's budget. Did you hear directly from the President on this? And again, this is important, I gotta go back home and explain to my constituents who — and many of them, in their cases, lose their jobs.
— Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX)
My concerns are many. They involve cost of this action, not only in terms of money, but also what the action will do to weaken our science and engineering workforce here in the United States, the loss of jobs and how it will affect our economy ...
As you know, the United States, Russia, Europe, Japan and China have all been, their space programs have all been government funded programs. If, in fact, the private sector could create a successful space program, I think they would have done so by now, either here in the United States or elsewhere.
— Rep. Jerry Costello (D-IL)
A refreshing whiff of blunt honesty was spoken by the next member:
Let me just note that some of the criticism that I hear of the decision that's been made here with Constellation, that the primary consideration behind that criticism seems to be not safety, and not necessarily human spaceflight, because we're talking about human spaceflight but being accomplished in a different way, but instead in maintaining NASA's workforce. Now, maintaining NASA's workforce — just to maintain the workforce — is an expensive proposition. And if maintaining a workforce that is not meeting its responsibilities, not on time, not doing things on schedule, not getting us to a place where we're going to accomplish specific missions, then that workforce is holding America back.
I can see whether it was the Space Shuttle program, or many other programs, that I've been witnessing here in the last twenty years, that maintaining the NASA workforce becomes a goal in and of itself. We've got to break ourselves from that type of thinking, or we're not going to be the leading power in space, and we should be.
— Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA)
Rep. David Wu resigned from Congress in August 2011 after allegations of unwanted sexual advances to the teenage daughter of a campaign donor. Image source: NPR.
It looks good right now to privatize. But this is the easy part. This is just the privatization step. In three, four or five years, maybe five or six years, when we really hit the hard part of getting those launch vehicles human-rated, I suspect that we might have some of the same cost problems that public launch vehicles have had, and that Ares I has ...
If we privatize this, we're still going to need a labor force. And if you think we're going to be able to afford three separate contractors for human spaceflight, I would like to see your business plan ... My apologies ... Not yours. I would like to see the Administration's business plan. Because, you know, there's the business of lifting satellites up, but I don't think there's a workable business plan for lifting humans up into low Earth orbit, at least from my business experience. It just doesn't look like it pencils out. And that's why we subsidize it with tax dollars. And we can either do it directly to NASA, or we can give the money to Boeing, to Lockheed Martin, or to SpaceX. And I just want to note that, to date, they haven't launched a human being. We talk about airlines in space. Well, when we encouraged airlines after World War II, that was the right time. If we had encouraged airlines in 1910, before World War I, it would have been significantly premature.
And I would encourage the Administration and your agency to consider whether this is premature, whether this is wise, and whether this dooms us to a future where there are no Americans in space, or at least that the dominant language in space is not English.
— Rep. David Wu (D-OR)
Like Mr. Olson, my district, I have many NASA employees and contractors at the Johnson Space Center. Y'know, since the inception of NASA, the mission has always been human spaceflight ... and I'm concerned about the mission changing. I'm concerned about the human spaceflight mission being completely cut out of this budget, the Constellation program going away, and an increase in funding towards something I don't consider to be a core mission of NASA, and that is climate change and weather observation ... As Mr. Wu mentioned, the language, I hope it continues to be English, but I think the Chinese and Russians could overtake us.
— Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX)
There are serious, serious concerns about the President's decision to decimate our American human spaceflight program. By cancelling the program of record, we trade a program that we know will work — although it has experienced delays, and part of those delays, unfortunately, came from drastic underfunding. But it's a program that has been deemed the safest program to take our astronauts back to lower Earth orbit, and then back to the Moon, Mars, or whereever we choose to explore ...
You look at the tens of thousands of direct jobs that are going to be impacted with the sunsetting of Shuttle and with the planned termination of Constellation, but in fact hundreds of thousands of highly skilled jobs through subcontractors and indirect industries will be impacted if these decisions move forward as well.
— Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ)
Rep. Marcia Fudge's Cleveland district is within a few miles of the NASA Glenn Center. Image source: Politic365.
The lack of a clear mission with goals and milestones fails to not only inspire the current NASA workforce, but also fails to inspire the future generations of scientists and astronauts — something that is so critical at this point in American history ... Having no light at the end of the tunnel, whether Mars or the Moon, we will not serve our country well at this time. Just last week, I was at JFK High School in my district, where I was talking to a young ROTC student. I asked him what he wanted to be, and he said, “An astronaut.” I had no clue what to say to him at that point. I wanted to say to him, “Find something else to do, because the chances of becoming an astronaut or a rocket scientist are approaching zero, because NASA is cancelling its human spaceflight plan.”
— Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH)
Rep. Donna Edwards is a former NASA Goddard employee. That space center is located in her county. Image source: Flickr.com
Just in terms of risk, the commercial sector is never going to absorb the kind of risk that it really takes to get these vehicles off the ground. And at the end of the day, the taxpayer will always have to absorb that risk. And if that's true, then why not really take it on by continuing to have NASA fully engaged in human spaceflight because, when it's all said and done, it's going to be on us anyway.
— Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD)
I think what you're doing is taking a shot in the dark. You have no way of knowing if any commercial entity will ever be able to put a man into orbit, no matter how much money you throw at them. What you're doing is you're taking NASA's manned space program and making it a faith-based initiative.
— Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL)
Rep. Suzanne Kosmas' district included Kennedy Space Center. She was defeated for re-election in November 2010. Image source: Wikipedia.
The job loss in my community, as you know, is devastating based on the impending finality of the Shuttle program, if in fact that is reality ... In the short term, we will be losing a highly skilled and competitive workforce from my community, one that is already suffering from 12% unemployment.
— Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D-FL)
Rep. Rob Bishop's Utah district includes the company that would have manufactured the solid rocket boosters for Constellation. Image source: Salt Lake Tribune.
When you have a President, and you who said you want to encourage kids to become involved in science, math and engineering — or STEM programs — I have to really admit to you, that the Summers of Inspiration is not going to fool a kid in college or in high school or junior high right now who looks at twenty to thirty thousand private sector jobs who are involved in science and math and engineering being given a pink slip, and the kind of chaos that goes into their particular life is not going to encourage anyone else to become involved in this area or any other area. This is a negative impact, it is a negative message, that certainly has no inspiration with it. This is not a program for a bold new path. It's more like managing America's decline.
— Rep. Rob Bishop (R-UT)
It's of great concern to me, of course, because I represent Marshall Space Flight. But it's not about jobs. The heart and soul of America is NASA. If we do anything, anything, to detract from that, we're gonna lose ... If the conversation could take place between you and the President, and you could say, “Mr. President, we need $3 billion a year for the next five years to make sure Constellation is on target and on time, and there's $800 billion over here in this stimulus, could you move $3 billion a year over into our space program so that we can be Number One, and we won't have to watch the Chinese land on the Moon from our living rooms?”
— Rep. Parker Griffith (R-AL)
At the time of this hearing, Rep. Bill Posey's district included only Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Today it also includes the adjacent Kennedy Space Center. Image source: Florida Today.
When the President was campaigning in my county, he promised that he would “close the gap” between Shuttle and Constellation. And Number Two, he would keep America first in space. He didn't close the gap. He made the gap eternal. And low Earth orbit sure as hell isn't keeping us first in space.
— Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL)
I've addressed Mr. Posey's fib many times before ... Barack Obama never promised to close the gap between Shuttle and Constellation. As you can watch here, he said he would close the gap “by speeding the development of the Shuttle's successor.” He didn't say that successor would be Constellation.