Louis D. FriedmanMay 19, 2009

More from the Budget Hearing

by Louis D. Friedman, Executive Director of The Planetary Society

When the hearing resumed, Scolese fielded questions from the Committee members. The first question was about the "gap" -- the time period between Shuttle retirement and the readiness of the Ares/Orion in 2015. Scolese reported that European, Japanese, and Russian vehicles will fill some of the gap for cargo, and that NASA was encouraging and anticipating some readiness from the commercial sector in the U.S. for cargo resupply to the space station. It is my opinion that crew access will be largely dependent on the Russians, although there is some new funding this year to develop commercial capability as well. But relying on private access is premature, and it will be Russian Soyuz flights that take humans to the space station for the foreseeable future. Scolese reminded everyone that even if there were another way up to the station, we need the Soyuz for emergency escape from the space station.

In a response to a question about the human return to the Moon, Scolese testified that Ares V development is continuing, but he wasn't very emphatic about its pace. He again noted that the major decisions on Ares V schedule and plans (and, of course, those for the Moon) depend on the Augustine Panel's finding and recommendations. He would not precisely say that the 2020 landing date on the Moon was still feasible.

Scolese described the Augustine Panel review as a "test" for NASA. And, he said, "no one likes a test." That said, he expressed confidence that the NASA team would pass the test.

Rep. Vernon Ehlers asked about Mars missions and the Mars exploration program, beyond the Mars Science Laboratory (MSL). Scolese could, of course, only cite the MAVEN, Discovery orbiter planned for 2013, and talks between the NASA and the European Space Agency about cooperating on future lander missions. He said that humans to Mars remained a goal, but cited that it was a distant goal and the difficulty of dealing with biological issues.

There was no reference to the large cuts in the Mars program. Rep. Ehlers did however follow up about the lack of Mars planning the in the human space flight program, and how he has seen no specifics about that. Scolese reiterated the NASA position that they need to practice extensively on the Moon before committing to Mars. Ehlers questioned whether that will really advance humans to Mars.

I was glad to hear that question. I question it, too. Scolese did admit that a number of technology areas needed for Mars exploration, including in-space propulsion, were underfunded.

Members of Congress cited strong support for the contributions NASA makes to education. The link between space and education is very strong, and very long standing. Education funding by NASA is sometimes controversial -- especially if it comes from program and project budgets. But the value of NASA and space exploration to inspiring and creating scientific and technical achievements in young people remains strong.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher criticized the spending of money on global climate change, while spending no money on near-Earth object defense. He (wrongly, in my opinion) linked money spent on global climate change with proving that human actions were the cause of climate change. Rohrabacher cited the near miss of Apophis as evidence that NASA should be spending money on planetary defense from NEOs. In response to Mr. Rohrabacher's question about the Arecibo radio telescope, Scolese said it was a National Science Foundation facility and responsibility.

Scolese testified, in response to a question from Rep. Alan Grayson, that the White House has not asked about any options to extend the shuttle, and that NASA has not offered any. He said it would cost a great deal of money to try to extend the shuttle schedule. If they were forced to do it without additional budget, it would delay or stop the Constellation program.

Rep. Grayson asked Mr. Scolese to predict future scientific discoveries. Wow, that's hard. Scolese cited possible discoveries about life on other worlds, finding terrestrial like planets in the universe, and, coming down to Earth, being able to better understand weather and climate and make discoveries about Earth dynamic processes. The Chair finally cut off the discussion of predicting benefits and discoveries saying, "we only have two days to have this hearing."

Scolese was asked about the aerospace industrial capacity in the U.S. He cited that it has shrunk a lot, with fewer companies, more consolidation, and fewer activities to keep a large workforce engaged and training young scientists and engineers. This, of course, is a national problem that transcends NASA.

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