For probably the final time, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden has run the congressional gauntlet. Over the course of eight days in March, Bolden testified at three hearings about NASA’s 2017 budget request.
The hearings were less adversarial than in recent years, when Bolden often faced sharp criticism about the agency’s proposed budget and priorities. A Senate appropriations hearing, for example, wrapped up in less than an hour, with only a few pointed questions from the subcommittee’s chairman, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.).
That doesn’t mean, though, that Congress was on board with the administration’s request for NASA. Bolden heard plenty of complaints about a budget request that will likely be rewritten by appropriators in the coming weeks.
One familiar topic involved reductions for the Space Launch System and Orion compared to the 2016 spending bill. Members at all three hearings criticized the cuts, which they argued imperiled NASA’s plans to fly the first crewed SLS/ Orion mission by 2023.
It’s not the first time the administration has offered funding for SLS and Orion that fell short of congressional expectations. “Frankly, I’m a little bit puzzled by the déjà vu we’re experiencing,” said Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) during the House Science space subcommittee hearing.
Other familiar topics included cuts to NASA’s planetary science program, particularly a Europa mission supported by key appropriator Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), and increases to Earth science. However, commercial crew, which for years was a hot button issue at NASA budget hearings, was scarcely mentioned.
There was also criticism of the overall NASA budget. Many saw the $19 billion request as a cut from the nearly $19.3 billion the agency received in 2016. Bolden explained that he was working from a 2016 request of about $18.5 billion, and that the final 2016 spending bill was a surprise, albeit a pleasant one, for NASA.
There were some members who suggested they would try to increase NASA’s overall budget in an effort to rectify perceived oversights in exploration and planetary science. “It is my hope that we can get NASA’s budget right again this year,” said Shelby.
But that assumes Congress passes spending bills in some form: no sure thing in an election year. Some members, though, said they wouldn’t mind a continuing resolution (CR) that funds NASA for part or all of 2017. “Why should Americans agree to this budget request when NASA would receive more money under a CR?” asked Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas).
Bolden made clear at all the hearings that this was likely his final budget request, the strongest sign yet that he doesn’t expect to remain at NASA when a new administration takes office next year. That might help explain the relatively warm reception he got at the hearings, as members thanked him for his service and redirected criticism of the budget request towards the White House.
“It’s difficult to be critical of this good man, because he’s a Marine,” Culberson said. “You’ve got to follow what the president’s recommended. We’re going to get you the funding you need.”