The absolute rift in American space policy, and the embarrassing dysfunction which has been the result, was on full display Thursday in a U.S. House of Representatives Science committee hearing on the FY 2015 budget request featuring testimony by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden. With the meeting taking place in the face of increased criticism of America’s reliance on Russia for rides to the International Space Station, Chairman Steve Palazzo wasted no time in getting right to the only subject which most members on the Republican side of the aisle seem to care about, increasing funding for the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft, a system which will not see a crewed flight until 2021 at the earliest.
At the same time, Palazzo, joined by fellow members Lamar Smith of Texas and Mo Brooks of Alabama continually attempted to shift blame for the lack of U.S. astronaut launch capacity onto the Obama Administration. General Bolden however, was having none of it, reminding the Committee that Congress has cut funding for Commercial Crew program every year since it was proposed, stating “This Congress chose to rely on the Russians because they chose not to accept the president’s recommendation and request for Commercial Crew.”
Had the requested funding been provided, Bolden pointed out, the U.S. would now be only months away from seeing the first launch of a crew capable system from American soil. Instead, the date looks like late 2017, provided Congress fully funds the program from here on out. Given the ongoing hostility to Commercial Crew, that could still be in doubt, although Russia’s next moves in Eastern Europe may prove to be the deciding factor in this long simmering debate.
Addressing the committee’s concerns over the Space Launch System, Bolden went on to add that despite complaints that NASA is not adequately funding the project, the nation has spent $12.5 billion on the program since the day he took office.
One issue the hearing did not address was the fact that two of the three U.S. systems, the Boeing CST-100 and Sierra Nevada Dream Chaser, will be boosted to orbit by a Russian main engine, leaving the SpaceX Falcon 9 and Dragon capsule as the only a fully American answer to the problem at hand.
Later, during a factually challenged line of questioning, Mo Brooks attempted to pin blame for the decision to retire the Shuttle on the Obama Administration, a decision which was made four years before the current President took office. The Alabama Representative then went on to assert that he is big believer in planning for all contingencies, and therefore NASA needs to have a plan for what to do if Russia stops selling taxi services to ISS. Generally dismissing the possibility as highly unlikely, Bolden pointed out that since the U.S. controls the station’s power supply and most of its computer systems, any such move would result in a stalemate, and temporary abandonment of the station.
It is worth noting that long time Russian space observer James Oberg recently pointed out in an NCB news article that NASA might consider fast tracking a Dragon return capsule which could be deployed if worse really did come to worse. The main impediment would be the lack of a docking adapter as opposed to the berthing hatch currently being utilized, one which requires operation from inside the station.
Given Brook’s avowed belief in contingency planning, in this case to overcome a problem he has helped perpetuate, it would be interesting to see the reaction if NASA really did show back up with a request to facilitate a Dragon emergency return vehicle asap.
In the end, Bolden returned to a statement he made several times during the course of the hearing. If NASA does not have ISS, it does not need SLS and Orion either. In other words, “no dessert if you don’t eat your vegetables.” Now we wait once again, to see if the plate winds up on the floor.