House Hearing Generates Heat, But Bolden Stays on Message -- Fund Commercial Crew - UPDATE
In a combative hearing today (April 8, 2014) before the House appropriations subcommittee that funds his agency, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden displayed anger and exasperation, but stayed on message – NASA needs full funding for the commercial crew program this year.
In a break with tradition, the annual hearing before the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee on NASA’s budget request was not solely focused on the budget. The first hour of today’s three-and-a-half hour hearing was devoted to a report by the National Academy of Public Administration (NAPA) on security at NASA and its field centers. CJS subcommittee chairman Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) essentially told NASA to commission the study last year because of his concerns about the access that foreign nationals, especially Chinese, have to NASA facilities.
The NAPA committee was chaired by former Attorney General and former Pennsylvania Governor Richard Thornburgh. It issued 27 recommendations and, as Thornburgh testified today, NASA agrees with and is implementing all of them. Nevertheless, Wolf and other subcommittee members used the opportunity to criticize NASA, especially its decision to categorize the report as “Sensitive but Unclassified” (SBU) so that it cannot be made public. Only a short summary is in the public domain.
Subcommittee member John Culberson (R-TX), rumored to be in line to take over chairmanship of the subcommittee after Wolf retires at the end of the year, charged that NASA gave it an SBU classification because it was “embarrassing.”
When it was Bolden’s turn to testify, he denied that characterization. He insisted the report revealed potential vulnerabilities at NASA that he did not want made public. Wolf called the SBU classification a “blunt instrument” and wondered why NASA could not have redacted potentially damaging information and released the rest of the report. It was a bruising exchange and Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA) made it a point to elaborate on Bolden’s decades of public service as a military pilot, astronaut, and U.S. Marine Corps Major General to make it clear that Bolden is committed to protecting the nation’s security.
The next two-and-a-half hours were no less confrontational, however. Many, many topics were covered, but by far the most contentious was debate over NASA’s commercial crew program. Bolden is laser focused on convincing Congress to fund the full $848 million request for commercial crew this year. The debate has special significance now because of the tense geopolitical relationship between the United States and Russia. While the International Space Station (ISS) is not affected by last week’s Administration policy decision to limit U.S.-Russian interactions – the ISS is specifically exempted – NASA is using the situation to drive home the need for American systems to take American astronauts to and from the ISS so NASA is not dependent on Russia.
Bolden stated his understanding of how much money Congress has approved for commercial crew in the past several years compared to the request. Wolf had different numbers and challenged Bolden’s account. The two threw down the gauntlet to each other to meet, with their staffs, to sort out whose numbers are correct, but the exchange became quite personal.
Wolf accused Bolden of misleading people about Congress’s support for commercial crew. At that point – after the hour of listening to criticism of how NASA handles foreign access to its centers and now hearing Wolf accuse him of misleading people – Bolden clearly had had enough. “I’m tired of having my integrity impugned,” he exclaimed. Though the discussion briefly moved on to another topic, Bolden was still smarting. After answering an unrelated question about the James Webb Space Telescope he said “If someone’s going to call me a liar, I take that personally.”
Wolf replied that no one had called Bolden a liar. After a few more minutes of unrelated discussion, Bolden apologized for losing his temper. [UPDATE: At a hearing the next day with Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker, Wolf also swore her in while assuring her that his decision to do so had nothing to do with her or her Department. Instead he referenced this hearing, saying that "maybe everything wasn't as accurate as was said... I think it's important that there be integrity when people come up; they just tell ... the truth. .... I'm going to send members information so you can see what I'm talking about and that's why we swear people in...."]
Throughout it all, however, Bolden kept his eye on the ball – insisting on the need for full funding of the request for commercial crew to reduce U.S. dependence on Russia.
Some of the other substantive topics of discussion included the following.
It was a rancorous hearing, but Culberson insisted to Bolden that “you’ve got no better group of friends up here than this subcommittee.” That may well be true – NASA is quite popular on Capitol Hill – but it was not all that obvious today.
Note: This article was updated with Wolf's comments at the hearing with Department of Commerce Secretary Pritzker on April 9, 2014.
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