NASA Budget Woefully Short Of Funds In Many Areas, Lawmakers State
The NASA budget plan is far short of adequate funds in many areas for the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2008, and there are concerns for the future of manned U.S. space flight, operation of the International Space Station (ISS), and research programs, lawmakers said.
One concern is that NASA hasn’t budgeted for costs of closing down the space shuttle program in 2010 and after, and also hasn’t planned well for the 1,500 subcontractors and suppliers in the space shuttle program as to how they will fare as they are phased out because of the program termination.
Another worry expressed by members of the House Science and Technology Committee space and aeronautics subcommittee is that NASA must have very good luck in conducting all the space shuttle missions planned to fly before the shuttle fleet retires in 2010.
The lawmakers responded to a report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the nonpartisan watchdog agency.
Christina T. Chaplain, director of acquisition and sourcing management with the GAO, estimated that the planned manifest of shuttle flights before the fleet retires comes down to an average of a shuttle launch every 2.7 months, which she said is “aggressive,” though if matters such as weather and space debris problems go well it is “achievable.” She noted that NASA has averaged a shuttle launch every 3.7 months since the Space Shuttle Challenger accident in 1986. Only the shuttles have the size and muscle to hoist huge structural components into orbit that are required to complete construction of the ISS.
Bad weather earlier this year forced months of delay in getting Space Shuttle Atlantis off the ground at Kennedy Space Center, Fla., or KSC. A violent storm slashed hail into the exterior foam insulation on the Atlantis external fuel tank.
William H. Gerstenmaier, associate NASA administrator for space operations, told the subcommittee that NASA workers had to make a Herculean 6,000 repairs to the dings in the foam, and did the job well so that no huge chunks of foam ripped loose during launch and ascent on the STS-117 mission to the ISS. As well, bad weather at KSC also forced Atlantis to land on the West Coast instead of returning to KSC. That meant Atlantis had to be ferried back to KSC atop a modified Boeing 747, an expensive and time-consuming addition to the mission.
Gerstenmaier expressed confidence that the manifest of remaining space shuttle flights is feasible.
True, he said, “the weather has been a little tough in the afternoons” at KSC. But, he continued, “The team has been able to work around it.”
Chaplain, the GAO witness, also said that NASA faces a critical gap from the time space shuttles cease flying in 2010, and the time when the next-generation Constellation Program U.S. spacecraft (the Orion crew exploration vehicle lofted by the Ares lifter) will begin missions in 2015.
Under questioning by the subcommittee, Gerstenmaier held out little hope that the space shuttle flights could be extended for a few more years by adding new missions.
“We’re in the process of terminating a lot of” subcontractor firms that provide essential input required for each succeeding shuttle mission, he explained. It would be difficult now to turn around and get them to resume that work, since those firms may move on to other activities. Later this year or next year, NASA will find it more and more difficult to set up an additional shuttle mission, he said.
He responded to questioning from a committee member as to whether NASA could add more missions to the shuttle fleet flight manifest, were Congress to provide the needed extra funds.
In program after program, NASA is being starved of funds that it requires, urgently, to perform all of its mandates fully, according to some witnesses and lawmakers.
Accordingly, Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), chairman of the space and aeronautics subcommittee, wrote to Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), the Senate Budget Committee chairman, asking Conrad to grill Jim Nussle, nominated to be the White House Office of Management and Budget director, on what Udall said is a serious underfunding of NASA.
Money hasn’t been requested to fund both development of a new space vehicle, the Orion-Ares space asset, and to fund existing NASA programs, Udall stated. Nussle should be asked just how NASA is supposed to carry out its mandates without sufficient funding, Udall told Conrad.
Other concerns raised at the subcommittee hearing included worries about micrometeoroid or space debris collisions with U.S. spacecraft that could damage them or astronauts inside them; worries about restrictions on international trade in sensitive technology items related to space; a pervasive lack of funding for research; and a labor strike in Florida that might affect space operations.