Congress questions O'Keefe about NASA budget

Posted: February 28, 2002

New NASA administrator Sean O'Keefe told members of a key Congressional committee Wednesday that the next several months will be critical to the future of the International Space Station and other major agency programs.

O'Keefe, the sole witness in a House Science Committee hearing about NASA's proposed fiscal year 2003 budget, said that studies currently scheduled to be completed in the next several months will factor heavily into decisions regarding plans to expand the International Space Station beyond its "core complete" phase.

O'Keefe said that the agency is currently studying both the cost of assembling the station to the core complete phase, as well as "excursions" beyond core complete, such as a habitation module or crew return vehicle. Those studies need to be done by this summer, he said, in order for its conclusions to make it into initial planning for the 2004 budget. "I hope to see enough progress by that time to make a decision," he said.

NASA decided to stop assembly of the station at core complete based on the recommendations last fall of an independent commission on ways to restructure the ISS program and get its management back on track. The core complete station, also known as Node 2 after the last US module that would be added to the station under that plan, would not offer a habitation module or crew return vehicle required for the station to expand to a seven-person crew. Without those elements, the station can only host three people at a time.

That decision has been strongly criticized by NASA's international partners in the station, including Canada, Europe, and Japan. They fear that leaving the station at core complete will dramatically reduce the amount of science they can do on the station, and also sharply restrict the opportunities for astronauts from these nations to be members of the station's long-term crew. Some representatives of these nations have suggested that NASA's failure to expand the station beyond core complete is a violation of the ISS partner agreements, documents treated by some nations as the equivalent of treaties.

When asked by Rep. Ralph Hall (D-TX), the ranking Democrat on the committee, whether a core complete ISS would fulfill those international agreements, O'Keefe declined to give a definitive answer. "I can't give you a yes or no answer on that," he said. O'Keefe added, though, that he believed that the station could go to Node 2 over the next two years and still follow those agreements.

The decision to stick to core complete was made as a cost-saving measure, but other members of the committee referred to a report issued earlier in the month by the Congressional Research Service, which found a shortfall of over $600 million just to reach Node 2. O'Keefe, however, didn't agree with that report's conclusions. "Frankly, I'm not sure that's the right number or not," he said, preferring to wait until current ISS studies are completed this summer.

O'Keefe said that studies on other aspects of the agency are currently underway. A strategic resources review is currently looking into whether there are more efficient ways to use NASA's centers and other resources. O'Keefe did deny a report that the review recommended the closure of one or more of NASA's 10 field centers. NASA is also working on a business case for space shuttle privatization, which it hopes to have done by September, when the agency's contract with United Space Alliance, the company that handles shuttle operations, runs out.

Despite some occasional strong questioning, O'Keefe was generally well-received by members of the committee, who took into account the fact that O'Keefe has, as he self-deprecatingly put it, "the vast experience of eight weeks on the job." However, some members made it clear in statements released after the hearing that they expect more definitive answers and concrete action from the new administrator in the coming months.

"Based on what I have heard today, there are a large number of NASA programs whose future directions are in limbo," said Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN). "The new administrator deserves a brief honeymoon to flesh out these issues, but within the next three to four months, we will need timely information on NASA's intentions in each of these areas if we are to make prudent funding decisions."

"Even after today's in-depth hearing, I still don't know what NASA's plan is for the International Space Station," said Hall. "At a minimum, the Administration needs to declare unambiguously and immediately that it is committed to completing the space station as defined in the international agreements governing the program. Without such a commitment, it becomes very difficult to convince American taxpayers that the billions of dollars invested in the station have been worthwhile."

"I share Mr. O'Keefe's vision of shaping NASA into a well managed, affordable, science-driven agency," said Rep. Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY), chairman of the House Science Committee. "And I think he has been raising the right questions to try to figure out how to structure NASA to be a vital agency for the foreseeable future. The frustration for us is that, of necessity, many of the answers to those questions are not yet in. We need to work together to find those answers this year."