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House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics
FY98 NASA Authorization Hearing on the International Space Station
The House Science Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics held an April 9 hearing on the status and future of the International Space Station.
Wilbur Trafton, Associate Administrator for the Office of Space Flight at NASA, delivered the bad news that delivery of the Service Module -- being built by Russia -- has been delayed from April 1998 to December 1998. Consequently, the launch of the Functional Cargo Block (FGB), the first segment of the space station, is being slipped from November of 1997 to no later than October of 1998, and could occur as early as June or July of 1998.
NASA is moving forward with contingency plans and will begin modification of the FGB so it can remain in orbit at least until December of 1999. NASA also is going ahead with construction of an interim control module based on a design by the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory.
To pay for the new hardware, NASA is asking Congress for authority to take $200 million (unused funds) from the Space Shuttle program and transfer the money to the "U.S./Russian Cooperation" budget. Trafton said additional funds (about $100 million) would be sought in the FY 1998 NASA budget.
If the Russian government fails to provide funding by the end of May for the Service Module, as now promised, Trafton said it will not be able to meet the December 1998 deadline.
Subcommittee members reacted to the news with anger. Science Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner, who made a special appearance at the hearing, blasted the Administration for making Russia a partner in the space station. He recounted the many broken promises made by Russian officials and said we "can tolerate no more." According to Sensenbrenner, NASA and the White House have been willing to "pay any price to keep Russia in the space station program." He called for the removal of Russia in the construction of critical elements.
Other members of the subcommittee expressed concern about the delay in the space station program caused by Russia. Rep. Roemer (D-IN), who repeatedly has offered amendments on the House floor to kill the station, viewed Russia's inability to meet its obligations as further justification to shut down the project. Roemer said the U.S. should not provide any additional funds to Russia to bail it out and, if the station is going to be built, the U.S. should do it without Russia's participation. Rep. Cramer (D-AL), the ranking Democrat on the Subcommittee, said he was troubled by Russia's situation and clearly "time is running out." Rep. Dave Weldon (R-FL) said it was a mistake to have Russia build critical elements of the station in the first place.
Most of the hearing focused on Russia's failure to meet its obligations regarding the space station and NASA's proposal to reprogram $200 million. The Subcommittee also examined the potential science that will be conducted on the space station. In addition to Trafton, testifying before the subcommittee were Dr. Robert Park, Professor of Physics at the University of Maryland; Dr. Larry DeLucas, Director of the Center for Macromolecular Crystallography; and Rick Tumlinson, President of the Space Frontier Foundation.
Park is an ardent opponent of the space station and said the facility is not the most cost-effective way to exploit microgravity for scientific purposes. Park said the station is pursuing "yesterday's science and technology," a position strongly challenged by members of the Committee. Members also disagreed with Park's assessment that microgravity science could be better performed by robotic spacecraft. Rohrabacher likened Park to a "skunk in a lawn party."
DeLucas provided a spirited defense of microgravity research aboard the space station. He emphasized its advantages compared to the Space Shuttle. The station will have substantially more power and will allow scientists to conduct research 365 days a year. He strongly disagreed with many of Park's statements and said humans were valuable for research in space.
Tumlinson objected to the way NASA is opening up the space frontier and said NASA should not be building and operating the space station, but mounting human exploration missions.
Trafton said the space station has passed the 59 percent completion mark and 162,000 pounds of U.S. flight hardware have been built. He said we now are in a critical phase "where a considerable amount of hardware is being assembled and tested, and software is being developed, integrated and checked out. Peak manufacturing and testing is occurring through FY 1997 and 1998." At the end of the hearing, Trafton, in response to a subcommittee member question, stated that NASA still plans to complete construction of the space station on schedule in 2002.
As an addendum to the hearing, chairman Rohrabacher, in response to questioning from Rep. Bill Luther (D-MN) requested NASA to submit a report within 30 days as to the causes and parties responsible for the failure of the fuel cell which caused the early return of Space Shuttle Discovery this past Tuesday.
Report prepared by Bill Livingstone
"Capital Capsule Comment" -- from George Smith, NSS Member
At one point during the hearing, Dr. Park stressed that despite his opposition to the space station, he surely was a great believer in the importance of exploration and discovery. He revealed that as a child he was fascinated by accounts of deep-sea explorers being lowered to great depths in tiny submersible chambers. As a child he was ready to risk his life for science in this way. But, he argued, we have since learned that such heroics are no longer necessary or appropriate, given that robotic probes can do the job better. Later in the proceedings Mr. Tumlinson circled back and tried to put a different spin on Dr. Park's self-revelation. Mr. Tumlinson expressed surprise that Dr. Park would be so reluctant to send people into space, given that as a child he had himself thrilled at the idea of personally venturing into unknown territory. Although Dr. Park did not have a chance to reply, one can imagine his response. Actually, one can imagine this is a dialogue between rationalist and romantic that will never end, because both points of view are too valuable to abandon.
About the "NSS Capital Capsule"
The National Space Society is an independent space advocacy group headquartered in Washington, DC. Its 25,000 members and 95 chapters support the creation of a spacefaring civilization. For more information on the NSS and our future in space, visit http://www.nss.org/.