NASA boss gets a pasting from Congress

Rep Frank Wolff

Rep Frank Wolff

Furious at the Obama White House decision to decimate funding in the Fiscal Year 2013 budget for Mars exploration, today NASA boss Charlie Bolden got a pasting from Congressmen angered by the swingeing decision. And asked if he endorsed the assertions from Defense Intelligence Agency director Gen Burgess that China was developing space capabilities that could be used in war, Bolden admitted that in his estimation China was developing ‘dual-use technology’.

Spaceflight will carry a special news item on this report in its next issue out early April. But when Rep Frank Wolff probed for an opinion on the DIA finding, Bolden said he had not read it because Congress had told him not pursue co-operation with China. To which Rep Wolff expressed surprise at the administrator’s lack of awareness and reminded the reluctant NASA boss that at the very least ‘it was OK to read books…!’

But the most vitriolic attack came when Bolden fumbled around trying to explain the reason, or the persons responsible, for chopping virtually all funds for robotic Mars exploration. Claiming that ExoMars never had been an agreed deal with ESA (who no doubt will be more shocked than merely surprised to hear that!), Bolden was bombarded with accusations of using ‘Orwellian language’ when explaining that the Mars programme was doing so well that he could cut it! ‘Cancelling flagships does not mean you are pushing ahead with the Mars programme’, rejoined Congressman Adam Schiff. ‘It is exactly the opposite!’

When probed about who was behind the Mars cut, Bolden claimed that he only took orders from the White House – which would seem to place the responsibility firmly at the door of Barack Obama. Who, having cut down the Constellation programme in 2010, has now decimated the robotic exploration of Mars – arguably NASA’s brightest jewel backed by an unprecedented list of achievements by an outstanding group of scientists and engineers.

Rep Culbertson reminded Bolden that the Mars programme was defined by law enacted by Congress to follow the National Academy of Science’s Decadal plan for planetary exploration, which left the NASA boss flailing for an answer. ‘What portion of the NASA funding should we (threaten) to withhold to get you to follow the law?’, he asked, to which Bolden could only repeat that he was doing just that – following the law. And when quizzed on escalation in the cost of the James Webb Telescope, he could only say that in his view the earlier figures were ‘figments of someone’s imagination’ inferring that the escalation was only evident if matched against unrealistic expectations. Which did not go down well; Congress has already castigated NASA over this issue.

Bolden was clearly out of his depth when asked about science research on the International Space Station, tears flowing as he eulogised over the science being returned from the ISS. But when asked about the slack performance of CASIS, the organization charged with managing science on the ISS, Bolden claimed he did not know the history behind the organization (there’s another book you’ve got to read Charlie!) and had no knowledge of the problems reported across the web-spectrum of NASA news and blogospheres.

Asked what he would do if they failed to deliver more and better science, he could only escape by claiming NASA ‘will find another way’. And on the issue of what to do if there is no commercial company able to fly astronauts to the ISS by 2017 when the current deal with Russia expires he said he did not know but would go away and find out. We will let you know if he ever does.

David Baker – Spaceflight


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