Should NASA have anything to with studying Earth? NASA Administrator Charles Bolden found himself having to explain that to lawmakers yesterday at a hearing by the House of Representatives on NASA's $18.7 billion budget request for 2012. Ironically, he testified only hours before a NASA mission to help understand climate change crashed into the Pacific after a rocket failure.
NASA wants $1.8 billion for earth science in next year's budget, up 25% from current spending levels. Among other things, the agency plans to use that money to ready the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2 for launch in 2013 and to begin the development of two missions to measure soil moisture and monitor ice sheets and forest cover.
The chairman of the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies, Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA), asked Bolden if NASA wouldn't be better off letting agencies—in particular, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Geological Survey, and the National Science Foundation—take over NASA's earth science efforts. Perhaps that would free up money for NASA to pursue space exploration, Wolf suggested. He also asked whether there was any overlap between the work being done by NOAA and NASA in monitoring Earth.
"Everything we do in earth science is unique to NASA," Bolden replied, emphasizing that looking down on Earth from space to understand our planet better was very much a part of NASA's job. And shifting NASA's earth science programs to other agencies would amount to getting rid of them entirely, he said. He pointed out that a 2009 study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office had found no duplication of efforts between NASA and NOAA.
At the hearing, Bolden also had to field charges of fiscal mismanagement at NASA. Committee member Kevin Yoder (R-KS), one of several new Republican members in Congress who are advocating large cuts in government spending, pointed to the $1.6 billion cost overruns in the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) as an example. Bolden's response was apologetic. "Nobody was as angry as I was when we discovered where JWST was," Bolden said, referring to the independent review that revealed JWST's troubles in November. He added that the management structure for the JWST project had been changed as a result of the findings.
The lesson learned from JWST, Bolden said, was that "the worst person" to ask about a project's cost estimate is "the program manager or principal investigator" of the project. Bolden assured Yoder and the rest of the committee that all future projects and missions would undergo independent assessment of cost.
Earlier, Bolden defended the agency's decision to request $850 million in the 2012 budget for the development of commercial rockets that NASA will rely on to get cargo and astronauts to the international space station. NASA's plan to use commercial spacecraft for some of its missions has been the biggest source of controversy in the Administration's new space policy, and the request is about $300 million greater than the level set by the NASA authorization approved by Congress last year.
Bolden explained to lawmakers that the additional funding level was necessary because "providing safe access" to the space station is the highest priority for NASA. The agency expects that it will be able to hire the services of commercial launchers by 2016. Until then, the agency is dependent on the Russian launch vehicle Soyuz.
See our 2012 Budget coverage.