Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Senate panel voices worries about pursuing NASA's new course

WASHINGTON — Key senators worried Wednesday that confusion between a hard-fought policy law for NASA and unresolved spending decisions could delay a boost in spending on new rocket development.

The problem is that Congress hasn't approved a spending bill yet for the year that started Oct. 1. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said at a science committee hearing that anticipated flat funding of $18.7 billion should be plenty for the agency to pursue its new path.

"We want to see this law implemented without a lot of griping and moaning and groaning if we are able to get that money appropriated," Nelson said.

Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas, voiced concerns in particular about how briskly NASA will develop its next rocket to reach asteroids and Mars.

"If there are impediments, we need to know right now," Hutchison said. "We still have the opportunity to put other words into the law."

Sen. David Vitter, R-La., said his biggest question for the hearing is whether the administration was going to be a full, active, positive partner in the new policy.

"From my perspective, so far the answer is no," Vitter said. "I hope that changes."

Nelson said he found Vitter's concerns "well-founded."

"We found too many times in the attempts at building consensus that there was too much evident that the administration was not helping," Nelson said.

Elizabeth Robinson, NASA's chief financial officer, said the agency can't pursue any "new starts" on work under flat funding extended from the current fiscal year. She said the restriction hasn't prevented work on a new heavy-lift rocket, but that officials continue to review legal language.

"We're working that issue daily," Robinson said.

John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, said "much work lies ahead" and urged Congress to approve a spending bill. He told Nelson the administration would follow the policy law.

"It is my hope that we can work with you in resolving this situation as quickly as possible," Holdren said.

The science committee called the hearing because of concerns about whether hard-fought policy legislation would govern the agency's path or whether a mismatched spending bill would lead to confusion.

President Barack Obama signed into law a contentious policy that aims to boost spending on commercial rockets, speed up construction of a new NASA rocket and retire the shuttle program after three final flights over the next year.

But Congress is preparing to approve a spending bill for the entire government for the year that started Oct. 1 that merely continues current spending policy.

The open question for NASA advocates in Congress is whether their hard-fought policy bill would guide agency spending or whether the spending bill would trump.

By Bart Jansen, Gannett Washington Bureau,


HBJ said...

Meanwhile, after the shuttle program stops we will pay the Russians tens of millions of dollars per person for our astronauts to get to the space station. A man-rated launch vehicle will take some time for us to certify. Probably won't be ready before 2015. And, all this to fly to an asteroid? I'd vote for the moon first.

On a side note I can see the need for aerospace engineers, ground support people, etc., needed to support this new, commercial program to be significantly less than what was needed for shuttle. Means a loss of more rocket folks. And we wonder why kids aren't interested in math and science......

Anonymous said...

If we didn't want to lose human spaceflight capability we should have complained when Bush canceled the Shuttle. I complained, but i didn't hear anyone else doing so.

If we want kids to be interested in math and science, we need to stop raising tuition through the roof at the state universities, and we need NASA to work with industry to make US manufacturing more competitive so there will be jobs for them. Sending a handful of people to the moon will not make US kids study. After Sputnik there was a massive increase in science and math education because the federal government provided funds to do it, not because of the space program.

HBJ said...

I studied math and science because I wanted to be an engineer, not because the goverment paid for it. Agree, the space job market is or will be on the way down. As for going back to the moon, why not? If the big plan is to eventually fly to Mars, the moon makes more sense to me as an interim step. Leave the asteroid missions to Hollywood.

Anonymous said...

"If the big plan is to eventually fly to Mars, the moon makes more sense to me as an interim step."

Who's big plan? The first priority of the voters is tax cuts. What makes you think they will pay for a trip to Mars? Where do you suggest we get the money? Borrow it from China? With Constellation technology we are talking about roughly $400 billion for one or two missions. What would we do then? Keep borrowing money to fly more missions?