Volume 2, No. 6 March 26, 1998
The House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee convened a hearing last Thursday morning to examine the International Space Station (ISS) and Space Shuttle programs. In what is becoming a predictable pattern, Science Committee Chairman James Sensenbrenner (R-WI) stopped by the hearing briefly to deliver a scathing broadside at the Administration, NASA, and Russia for mismanaging the space station. He likened the problems to the movie, "Titanic," and said that NASA, despite repeated warnings, was careening full speed into iceberg- laden waters.
Sensenbrenner said the ISS program is now one-and-a-half years behind schedule and $4 billion over budget, a figure later disputed in testimony by Joe Rothenberg, NASA Associate Administrator for the Office of Space Flight. The Wisconsin Congressman blamed President Clinton for cutting NASA's budget during this critical time, forcing the space agency to rob science programs to pay for the cost overruns, and called upon the President to intervene to help fix the problems. He said Russia has failed to meet every milestone and "the only thing we can depend upon Russia to do is miss future scheduled deadlines."
After Sensenbrenner's fusillade, Subcommittee Chairman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) predicted the members would "have a spirited hearing." But this did not prove to be the case. Instead, when the subcommittee members asked tough questions, NASA offered feeble responses. Rothenberg, who admittedly has been on the job only eight weeks, offered a weak defense of the station, meekly accepting Congressional criticisms. The most stirring defense of the space station was offered by Congressman Roscoe Bartlett (R-MD), a Ph.D., engineer, and businessman. He spoke forcefully about the station's potential to capture America's imagination, and to elevate student interest in science, math, and engineering.
Much of the hearing came down to an accounting dispute over the size of the ISS cost overruns. A year ago, the program's price tag was listed at $17.4 billion. Subcommittee members charge the program is now $4 billion over budget ($21.4 billion). Rothenberg said the total is $19.7 billion. He disputed several items in the members' tabulation, including $400 million for the U.S.-Russian Cooperative Program, $250 million for the Russian assurance program, and $650 million to develop the Crew Return Vehicle. These programs were not in NASA's initial ISS proposal, Rothenberg said, so it is unfair to consider them as cost overruns.
During a hearing the previous week, Goldin said ù with the exception of an additional $100 million in new funding in FY 1998 ù NASA will not need any additional money from taxpayers to build the station. All financial obligations will be met by prioritizing programs, productivity gains within the agency, and the transfer of funds. Goldin said cost overruns will not exceed 5 percent of the total budget. These statements are strong defenses politically, but were never mentioned in this hearing.
Rothenberg did acknowledge $900 million in cost overruns, of which he attributed $800 million to the Boeing Company and the rest to subcontractors. Because of Russian delays in building the Service Module, the station's assembly schedule slipped about a year, costing $1.3 billion.
Most of Rothenberg's testimony on the ISS was a verbatim copy of the material offered by Goldin last week. There was, however, new information on the Space Shuttle and a list of major lessons learned from the NASA-Mir Phase I program. Highlights include:
Tommy Holloway, shuttle Program Manager, said the most efficient flight rate for the shuttle is 10 or 11 missions annually. If NASA were given a green light, he said commercial payloads could be flown on the shuttle as early as 2002.
Engine upgrades to the shuttle have reduced the chance of an accident from one in 248 to one in 483.
NASA is moving ahead with Phase II shuttle upgrades and is studying Phase III upgrades (avionics and communications, long life fuel cells, electric and non- toxic Auxiliary Power Unit, Block III Shuttle Main Engine, and additional cockpit upgrades).
NASA is continuing to study the Liquid Fly Back Booster (LFBB). Results will be reported to Congress by the end of March.
NASA has established a Space Transportation Counsel to "oversee the development and strategies of the Phase III and IV shuttle upgrades and to develop a strategic investment plan that will lower NASA's launch costs while assuring safe, reliable access over time."
About 18,500 people are needed to operate the shuttle system (16,519 contractor workforce; 1,884 government workforce). In FY 1999, NASA plans to reduce the contractor workforce by six percent and government personnel by 16 percent.
Finally, Congressman Tim Roemer (D-IN), a longtime opponent of the space station, lambasted NASA for the cost overruns, saying ISS stands for "international sucking sound."
About the NSS Capital Capsule
The Capsule is a timely report of highlights from Capitol Hill hearings and other events involving space issues. Prepared by NSS staff or volunteers who attend in person, the Capsule provides NSS members and activists an "insider's" look into the thoughts of our national elected officials on space issues.
The National Space Society is an independent, nonprofit space advocacy group with headquarters in Washington, DC. Its 23,000 members and 90 chapters actively promote the creation of a spacefaring civilization.