WASHINGTON, Feb. 13 (UPI) -- This week's hearing by the House Science committee on the Bush administration's proposed new direction for the U.S. space program left no doubt that doubts pervade Congress about the idea.
The committee invited Sean O'Keefe, NASA's administrator, and John H. Marburger III, the president's science adviser, to testify Thursday on the new space plan -- which calls for a return to the moon and future missions to Mars within the next 20 years.
Though committee members expressed bipartisan support and enthusiasm for the policy -- announced by President George W. Bush on Jan. 14 -- they expressed an equal amount of concern about its cost and NASA's ability to carry it out.
"Right now, we have far more questions than answers," said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., the committee's chairman. He added, however, the president and his advisers "should be congratulated for doing something no one has done for 40 years: laying out a space policy with a seemingly reasonable price tag."
Ranking minority member, Rep. Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., echoed Boehlert's comments, and said the new space plan
has "the potential to make significant changes to NASA." He said he thought a "sustained presence on the moon makes a lot of sense."
Gordon also said further analysis may show NASA's plans are unrealistic. "I am concerned that other NASA programs not be cannibalized," he added.
Rep. Dana Rohrbacher, R-Calif., the chair of the Space and Aeronautics subcommittee, disagreed.
"I expect the president to cannibalize other programs in order to make this program work," he said. "That is called setting priorities. But these must be clear decisions (so one goal is identified) as more important than another."
Later in the hearing, Rohrbacher noted much of the planned shift in priorities would come at the expense of NASA's space launch initiative, a program he has supported over the years. Nevertheless, he said, he would back the shift to make the new space plan work.
"I have been a staunch advocate of returning to the moon and establishing a permanent presence," Rohrbacher continued, but cautioned, "NASA must make clear how investments will support a combination of human, robotic, and private sector initiatives. Nothing less threatens the credibility of the president's space vision."
Rep. Nick Lampson, D-Texas, said the new space plan was "welcome and overdue." Like his colleagues he also expressed concern whether "the implementation plan is credible and sustainable."
Referring to the danger of underfunding, he said, "I don't want to put 10 pounds of new tasks into a 5 pound budgetary sack. We are being given the opportunity to construct a productive and exciting future for our civil space program and we need to get it right."
Addressing these concerns, Marburger repeated the description of the plan Bush had used in his Jan. 14 speech.
"The president describes this vision as a journey not a race," Marburger said. "This is different from Apollo, which required a massive budget spike and an aggressive schedule. This policy is set such that each step seeks to reduce the cost of all subsequent missions. The emphasis is on sustained exploration and discovery in an appropriate means at a pace we can afford in terms and risk we can afford."
Marburger explained the moon represents "the closest platform that will allow all aspects of these future
programs to be tested. It is not just a more remote version of the International Space Station. The long-term value of the moon is not in terms of science, but rather its value in all future exploration missions."
Marburger told committee members much of the $11 billion earmarked to be spent on the new program between fiscal years 2005 and 2009 comes from cancellation of the space launch initiative, space shuttle retirement and refocusing of research aboard the International Space Station.
"This is not a crash program to achieve single point destination objectives," O'Keefe explained. "It is a deliberate focus on lunar, Mars and beyond objectives." The new space plan "does not anticipate inventions along the way. Rather, it assumes that events along the way are used to adjust the path."
O'Keefe called the plan "fiscally realistic" and said it fits within Bush's overall plan to reduce the federal deficit.
"There is no massive commitment today that will need to be paid for by some future Congress," he said. "This plan will be evaluated along the way as an annual matter of review. There is no commitment being asked for today for a large balloon payment in the future."
O'Keefe told the committee NASA will be dependent on Russian Soyuz spacecraft for the foreseeable future to carry crews to and from the space station. The plan also assumes reliance on Russian rockets after the space shuttle is retired in 2010.
Asked if he planned to seek legislative relief from the provisions of the Iran Nonproliferation Act, which precludes purchase of goods or services (such as Soyuz) from Russia, O'Keefe replied: "We are not seeking
exemption to the law at this time, but we are continuing our negotiations with our partners right now."
Regarding the announced cancellation of the shuttle servicing mission to the Hubble Space Telescope, Marburger said the decision was "based on a safety assessment by NASA and Columbia Accident Investigation Board recommendations."
Regarding the Hubble's importance, Marburger said: "Tremendous progress has been made with ground based telescopes.
Adaptive optics are now competitive with and sometimes better than Hubble at longer wavelength, such as the near infrared."
He noted a recent survey of the astronomy community revealed many see the next great discoveries coming in the infrared range of light -- a range that Hubble cannot observe.
Rep. Mark Udall, D-Colo., disagreed that safety was the key factor in the decision not to repair Hubble.
"If (the shuttle) is safe enough to fly to the space station, then it is safe to fly to Hubble," he commented, adding, "If we are too risk-adverse to send a mission to Hubble, where does this place us with regard to missions to Mars or the moon?"
O'Keefe replied canceling the Hubble service mission was "one of the most painful decisions I have had to confront."
He explained his concerns were not generated by risk aversion. Instead, they were "generated by a capacity that we intend to embrace the recommendations of CAIB, and that facing the prospect of this mission at the time it needs to happen that we could not comply with all of those recommendations."
Rep. Zoe Lofgren, D-Calif., whose district lies near NASA's Ames Research Center, asked about the possibility of facility closures.
O'Keefe acknowledged NASA will look at all its facilities -- including Ames -- although he added the agency has no immediate closure plans.
One of the most common concerns of the committee members was NASA's current plans to resume shuttle operations by next September, as currently planned.
"I have my doubts," O'Keefe said, adding he might make his decision about the matter next week.
Keith Cowing is editor of nasawatch.com. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org