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Griffin Draws Wide Praise, But Lawmakers Warn NASA Underfunded

By | March 19, 2007

      Democratic and Republican members of both the House and Senate lavishly and repeatedly praised NASA Administrator Michael Griffin for his excellent leadership of the space agency, but the legislators were just as unanimous in condemning the Bush administration NASA budget plan as inadequate.

      Their views were voiced as Griffin underwent a grueling series of back-to-back hearings over several days, in which senators and House members examined the White House budget plan for NASA in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2008, and later years.

      During hearings, he said that the delay in the first flight of the next-generation Orion-Ares space vehicle system replacing the space shuttle could be reversed, for a price.

      The net delay of perhaps six months from 2014 to 2015 could be reversed by adding $350 million to the NASA budget in the fiscal year ending Sept. 30, 2009, and $400 million in fiscal 2010, Griffin said.

      And further funding could improve the situation even more. To pull the first Orion-Ares launch back to 2013, it would cost about $100 million for each month earlier the liftoff ignited, he said.

      It was clear, in committee after committee where Griffin testified, that lawmakers like him, like the programs NASA conducts, and would like to provide more total money for the space agency — if, that is, such a financing increase can be finessed within congressional budget rules.

      Griffin said that “I don’t need any additional money in” fiscal 2008, the budget now before Congress. Rather, added funds would be needed in the NASA budget for fiscal 2009, which he begins writing next month.

      “If I get the president’s budget [request for NASA funding] in ’08, and if [added] funding in ’09 and ’10 were to be supplied” by Congress, “we would be back on track” to launching Orion-Ares in 2014, he said.

      Stellar Performance

      On the one hand, the lawmakers praised Griffin for his work in the past year, including moves to improve safety on space shuttles as they went ahead with missions following the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster in 2003.

      He also drew kudos for dazzling photos from Mars and other heavenly bodies, the start of probing new assessments of the sun, a leap forward as astronauts resumed years-delayed work on construction of the International Space Station, and much more.

      But the lawmakers said the NASA budget plan is inadequate, leaving no room for error. It underfunds science programs, and more.

      One example of that concern came from Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski (D-Md.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee commerce and related agencies subcommittee.

      “There is no more visible sign of American global leadership than our space program,” she told Griffin. “To lose that position to other countries would be a tragedy.”

      The NASA budget plan imposes tight finances on the space program — too tight, she said. “With almost no real growth in NASA’s budget, there is no margin for errors,” she warned. There is only one solution to the problem, she said: increase the total funding for NASA. “The only way to reduce the pressure on the budget, and maintain a balanced space program, is to raise the top line for NASA,” Mikulski stated.

      She called for a summit meeting on the U.S. space program that would include both Democrats and Republicans, House members and senators, and President Bush to discuss the severe underfunding of NASA. (Please see separate story in this issue.)

      She also expressed dismay that the NASA budget plan envisions funding gains of merely 3 percent annually, which she noted “just keeps up with inflation.” She asked Griffin to state publicly what levels of funding he originally requested for NASA before the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) wrote the final version of the space agency spending request to Congress.

      While Griffin acknowledged that her view on funds just keeping pace with inflation is correct, he said he couldn’t divulge private conversations with OMB officials.

      Rather, Griffin throughout hearing after hearing, acted as a soldier, defending the administration budget request for his agency.

      In various committees, both lawmakers and Griffin agreed that the gap between retiring the shuttle fleet in 2010 and the first Orion-Ares liftoff in 2014 or 2015 would pose a problem, with many talented people either unneeded or uninterested in working for NASA and other parts of the space community, with those people drifting off into other work.

      And Griffin received many other expressions of support on Capitol Hill.

      $2.7 Billion Gap

      For example, in the House Science and Technology Committee hearing, Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), the chairman, made clear that more funding is needed for NASA.

      He said the Bush administration has cut the long-range five-year budget plan for the space agency by a total of $2.7 billion in the past several budget cycles, with the cuts extending through fiscal 2009.

      In the fiscal 2008 budget plan alone that is now before Congress, Gordon said that there is a $924 million shortfall in funding for the International Space Station (ISS) and cargo services.

      The budget plan also doesn’t include funds for the required upgrade of the Deep Space Network, and reduces the amount of reserves available to meet ISS threats over the years remaining in the shuttle program, Gordon continued.

      Funding for research and for aeronautics also is lacking, Gordon said. He asked whether the OMB might have been responsible for the lack of funds in the budget request.

      Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), chairman of the space and aeronautics subcommittee, voiced sympathy for Griffin, saying that “you have a tough job.”

      Udall portrayed Griffin as putting “the best face on the budget [proposal] that you have to defend.” But Udall agreed with Gordon that NASA requires far more funding.

      Rep. Ralph Hall (R-Texas), lauded Griffin, saying, “We are fortunate to have such an intelligent and focused man leading the agency because NASA faces tough challenges ahead.”

      By tough, Hall referred to a gap of perhaps $3 billion in the actual cost of remaining space shuttle flights. Problems includedthe Bush administration writing budget requests for less NASA funding than expected earlier, and Congress failing to pass a budget for NASA, instead deciding to freeze NASA funding in the current fiscal 2007 at the old fiscal 2006 levels.

      “Mr. Griffin, I’m not being critical about your performance,” Hall said. “You are doing a superb job, and I don’t know anyone better qualified to lead the agency.

      “But I’d certainly encourage you to talk to your friends at OMB and the White House, and tell them that NASA’s friends on Capitol Hill are growing concerned that the agency is squeezing too hard [financially] and will suffer for it unless more realistic budgets are presented,” Hall warned.

      Specifically, Hall said he wants to work with Griffin to accelerate the Orion-Ares first flight back to 2014 from the current 2015 estimate.

      Likewise, Rep. Ken Calvert of California, ranking Republican on the subcommittee, sees NASA needing more funds.

      “NASA is in a budgetary vise that is making it extremely difficult for the agency to successfully meet the many demands of its diverse portfolio of missions,” Calvert cautioned.

      “Unfortunately, the [fiscal 2008 administration] budget seeks just $17.3 billion for NASA, substantially less than authorized,” he said. To be sure, Calvert added, that gain of 3 percent over the prior fiscal year “is well above many other agencies within the discretionary budget,” during tight fiscal times when federal ledgers are awash in red ink.

      But it still is true that the threadbare budget “jeopardizes NASA’s ability to successfully accomplish its portfolio of missions,” Calvert continued.

      And, he said, don’t forget that the United States isn’t alone on planet Earth.

      China Threat

      Rather, the shortage of fiscal support for the American space program comes just as “other countries, such as China, are eagerly ramping up their own space and aeronautics programs,” Calvert noted.

      To underscore the rapid rise of China in space programs, he noted, the Asian giant recently used a missile to shoot down one of its own aging weather satellites, an anti- satellite strike that “should remind us all that the Second Space Age will be … crowded and competitive,” Calvert said.

      While there is ample blame to go around as to who put NASA into poverty, Calvert said looking back and finger-pointing won’t solve the problem.

      Rather, he counseled his colleagues in Congress to launch “a coordinated effort to secure a top-line [appropriations] budget for the agency that is closer to the authorized amount.”

      He said members of the Science Committee must “aggressively educate our peers” in Congress on the vast import of space programs.

      Gordon, the full committee chairman, then summed up by noting that “there is unanimity” among both Democrats and Republicans on the committee that NASA must have more money.

      The chairman called for a joint hearing on NASA funding problems that would be held by both the Science and Technology Committee, the authorizing body, and the House Appropriations Committee that each year supplies the actual money for NASA.

      But some lawmakers will fight such a move on the House Floor, Gordon predicted. So an all-out lobbying effort is needed, and that must include some muscle supplied from the White House, he added.

      “We need the president to help us,” Gordon said.

      The top-ranked lawmaker on the full committee bantered in good humor with Griffin, concluding that the NASA administrator, in bringing the Bush administration space budget to Congress, essentially is a messenger.

      Gordon said he would not wish “to shoot the messenger. I just wish you had a better message” — meaning a NASA budget request containing more money for the agency and its space programs.

      Similarly, concern was expressed by Rep. Alan B. Mollohan (D-W.Va.), chairman of the House Appropriations Committee science and related agencies subcommittee.

      Mollohan fears that the remaining roster of space shuttle missions to the space station is “really tight,” leaving no room for problems.

      Griffin acknowledged that the flight schedule is crowded, with 16 flights to go before the 2010 deadline for space shuttles to retire. “It’s tight,” he said.

      But William H. Gerstenmaier, NASA associate administrator for space operations, said that flights have been ordered “in an appropriate sequence,” with the least important missions last.

      Griffin said that a decision was made six years before the last shuttle flight to end the program in 2010. “At some point you buy your last [external fuel] tank, and your last set of solid rocket boosters … and it’s done,” meaning the die is cast at that point, he said.

      At the same time, while anticipated years in advance, it will be “an enormous challenge to wind down” the shuttle program, he said.

      Griffin expressed mixed feelings at seeing the shuttle fleet retire.

      On the one hand, the spacecraft is “awesome,” able to hoist more and larger cargo into orbit.

      As well, once the shuttles retire, the United States will be dependent on others, such as the Russians or private space transport companies, to send crews and servicing missions to the space station, until Orion-Ares begins flying four years later.

      “It’s not a pretty position to be in to be dependent on someone [else] for basic capabilities,” the NASA official said.

      But on the other hand, the shuttle is “expensive, fragile and does not have a high degree of availability.” Further, “if anything goes wrong at all,” in the way of a major malfunction, there is but a small chance of the crew coming back alive.

      At this point, the shuttles have been flying almost 30 years, and it is time for them to retire, Griffin said.

      Rep. John A. Culberson (R-Texas), noted that at one time, during the moon shot years of the Apollo program, NASA funding comprised about 4 percent of the federal budget. But currently, that has shriveled to about 0.6 percent.

      To be sure, that reduction is exaggerated somewhat by the growth of other parts of the budget such as entitlement spending, Culberson said.

      Griffin also noted when asked that China has a space program employing far more than twice the number of key personnel in NASA, about 200,000 versus 75,000-80,000.

      While China hasn’t yet advanced its space program as far as the U.S. program, it also is true that China hasn’t had to invent many of the things that NASA had to devise to venture into space, Griffin noted.

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