U.S. Senator Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), Vice Chairman of the Appropriations Committee and its Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies, today at a hearing on NASA's fiscal year 2015 budget request with Administrator Charles Bolden, sharply criticized the agency's lack of commitment to funding SLS, the primary program that will allow America to maintain its leadership role in human space exploration:
Thank you, Madam Chair.
Administrator Bolden, as one of the most publicly-recognized agencies in the federal government, NASA serves as an inspiration to many across the globe. For more than 50 years, NASA has pushed the boundaries of human knowledge through exploration and scientific discovery.
The cutting edge missions and projects historically undertaken by NASA are technologically challenging and risky. A true commitment of resources coupled with strong oversight is required for these efforts to stay on schedule and on budget.
In spite of this, NASA's 2015 budget proposal is $186 million below the current enacted level and contains drastic inequities with respect to program oversight. This calls into question the Administration's level of commitment to a forward thinking, inspirational space program.
For example, while the Space Launch System (SLS) is subject to strict and necessary oversight, severe budget cuts will ensure delays and unnecessary cost growth. At the same time, NASA has taken a hands-off approach with the commercial crew and cargo programs, choosing instead to commit seemingly unlimited federal resources with little to no transparency or accountability. Neither of these approaches, in my view, is acceptable.
While your statement depicts SLS as critical to NASA's exploration goals, the requested budget does not reflect a true commitment to that endeavor.
Instead, the budget request maintains a resource level that underfunds SLS and inserts unnecessary budgetary and schedule risk into the future of human exploration.
For the first time in recent memory, NASA has a strategic plan for space exploration that will utilize one platform to meet the needs of multiple exploration missions well into the future. That platform is SLS.
Historically, NASA has planned a single mission and then set out to build a program around that mission. Not so with SLS.
Once SLS is operational, NASA will be able to provide critical heavy lift capabilities to short, medium, and long range missions. In short, SLS will provide NASA a versatile platform to conduct a variety of missions.
For example, SLS will allow NASA to break free of its decade's long tether to low Earth orbit. It will enable NASA to go to an asteroid and achieve the ultimate goal of sending humans to Mars.
In addition, SLS will create significant opportunities for planetary robotic science missions and space based astronomy. It is the vehicle that will make NASA's goals for exploration possible.
None of this will be possible if we short change this effort.
My concerns about this budget are not focused solely on SLS. They also extend to NASA's commercial launch program.
While the commercial cargo program eventually succeeded in delivering cargo to the International Space Station, it came at a significant cost.
Space X has flown three successful missions to the International Space Station and Orbital has flown one. Those accomplishments should be celebrated.
Yet, it is worth noting that these missions could not have been achieved without the investment of nearly 800 million taxpayer dollars.
NASA paid these companies in spite of delayed milestones, shifting completion dates, and a final delivery schedule that was two and a half years behind. All the while NASA had little insight regarding the delays and even less about the investments being made by the companies.
Today, NASA is using the same flawed model to advance the commercial crew program. Once again, NASA is spending billions to help private companies develop a launch vehicle, but has little to no access to the books and records associated with its investment.
In fact, none of these companies will publicly disclose its investment in this so-called "public private partnership." Is the federal government a majority investor or a minority investor? The fact is there is no transparency into the true total investment in these vehicles.
Notwithstanding the total federal investment, I am most troubled that these programs lack an oversight component. Much like the cargo program, we are beginning to see similar issues surface with the crew program.
These issues are not grounded in funding shortfalls, but rather in the capability of these companies to meet their own proposed milestones and deadlines. Moreover, NASA ceded its authority to investigate these problems when it signed the Space Act agreements that fund these companies.
I fully recognize that these are not simple efforts -- they are technically difficult and extremely risky. That said, the lack of transparency coupled with the continued demands for additional taxpayer resources to fund a "commercial venture," is difficult to rationalize.
While new and innovative ideas often require significant investment and involve significant risk they cannot come at the expense of other priority programs. Furthermore, they should never be guaranteed funding with little to no oversight.
I plan to work with the Chair to make NASA's budget reflect its priorities, and to address the inequities in accountability that are emblematic of this request.
Thank you, Madam Chairwoman.