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Mikulski "Deeply Troubled" by NASA's Budget Request; SLS Won't Use 70 Percent JCL

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-May-2014
Updated: 01-May-2014 03:37 PM

Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) said she is "deeply troubled" by President Obama's FY2015 budget request for NASA because it is $186 million less than the current year and some of the cuts will affect programs at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC) in her home state.  Meanwhile, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden told Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) that it would be "unrealistic" to fund the Space Launch System (SLS) at the 70 percent confidence level required for other NASA projects and hinted that the launch date for the first SLS may slip to 2018.

The one-hour hearing before the Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee today (May 1, 2014) covered mostly familiar ground, though Shelby's colloquy with Bolden about the SLS confidence level and questions by both Senators about U.S.-Russian relationships were interesting.

Shelby said he is concerned that the budget request for SLS in insufficient to comply with NASA's policy that programs be funded to meet a 70 percent schedule and cost confidence level.  Shelby says he thinks the funding for SLS will be only enough to meet a 50 percent confidence level.

NASA imposed the 70 percent policy (NPD 1000.5) in response to decades of significant cost overruns on its programs.   Each program is required to go through a Joint Confidence Level (JCL) assessment to determine the probability that cost and schedule will be equal to or less than set  targets.  Programs are supposed to be budgeted such that there is a 70 percent probability of achieving the stated cost and schedule.  However, the policy also allows that a different probability can be approved by the decision authority, saying at a minimum a 50 percent confidence level should be used, but even then offers the caveat "or as approved by the applicable decision authority."   So there is some flexibility, but NASA has been using the 70 percent confidence level for its recent new programs.   The consequence is that more money must be provided early in a program's life cycle in order to meet the higher confidence level that overruns will be avoided in the long run.  That can be a problem when budgets are tight.

Bolden replied that he is "comfortable" with SLS using a less than 70 percent confidence level because the systems being used for the rocket are mature.  But he added that it would not be realistic budgetarily anyway.  "You can't fund enough to get SLS to a 70 percent JCL and I don't want you to do that, I'm not asking for that, that would be unrealistic" Bolden told Shelby, but "I will have the same assurance at a lower [JCL] for SLS that I have for other projects that are much less mature at a [JCL] of 70 percent." 

Bolden said he was getting enough money to hold the SLS schedule.  However, NASA has been saying for years that the first launch would be in 2017.  Today Bolden hedged and said it was looking like the launch would be "in fiscal year 2018," which is October 1, 2017-September 30, 2018.   Shelby pressed Bolden on the issue and Bolden said he would know within a month exactly what launch date the agency is planning toward and the program's cost estimate after the results of the Key Decision Point C (KDP-C) review are released.  That review was supposed to be completed in April. SLS is being built at NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL in Shelby's home state.

Mikulski arrived at the hearing late, about a half hour after it started with Republican Shelby in charge, because it took her 2.5 hours to make the trip from her home in Baltimore to Capitol Hill because of flooding and other effects from yesterday's storm.  She thanked Shelby and said the arrangement was a tribute to the bipartisanship and trust between them.  In addition to serving as chairwoman and ranking member of this subcommittee, they also are the chairwoman and ranking member of the full Senate Appropriations Committee (in fact, Shelby is "vice chairman" of the full committee).

She said she is "deeply troubled" that the President's budget request for NASA is $186 million less than FY2014 and honed in on cuts that would affect Goddard.  She said Goddard would be cut $200 million and especially decried cuts to the Hubble Space Telescope of $23 million and the James Webb Space Telescope of $13 million. JWST is following a budget profile agreed to between NASA and Congress several years ago after steep overruns in the program.  The $13 million reduction is part of the profile.  Nevertheless, Mikulski argued that JWST margins are "thin."   She noted that she had been told the Hubble reduction was due to an accounting adjustment and it would be remedied in the FY2016 budget, but she said she was concerned about today, not the future.  She also criticized a $56 million cut to Earth science programs (many of which are managed by Goddard). 

"I don't want science to be a bank account for other projects that might or might not happen in the future," she exclaimed.  Bolden assured her that he is not doing that and Goddard's future does not appear as robust as she would like in FY2015 budget documents because future projects, like the Wide-Field Infrared Space Telescope (WFIRST), are not yet included.  Mikulski was not mollified, saying "We strongly disagree on this." 

Separately, Bolden declined to answer a question from Shelby about the impact on NASA of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims injunction against United Launch Alliance or the Air Force from buying RD-180 engines from Russia because it is a matter in litigation.  ULA builds its rockets in Decatur, AL.  

He reassured Shelby and Mikulski that relationships between NASA and Russia's space agency, Roscosmos, are "solid."   Mikulski said "it's all OK and you're doing Kumbaya now" but what about the future if relationships deteriorate.  Bolden demurred, saying that he did not want to delve into diplomatic matters.  He did say at another point in the hearing that if either the United States or Russia pulls out of the ISS partnership then "the International Space Station as we know it no longer exists."

Shelby, a strong critic of NASA's commercial crew program, which is developing U.S. systems to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) to end U.S. reliance on Russian Soyuz launch vehicles and spacecraft, nonetheless asked what it would take to accelerate those systems in case the United States and Russia cut ties.   Bolden said that some of the companies competing for NASA's commercial crew contract plan to begin flying their systems in 2015, but that does not mean they would be human-rated by then, so NASA is sticking with 2017 for its planning purposes.   He declined to say how many companies would be selected for the commercial crew contract, a decision expected in late summer, but said any selected vehicles would be safe and available to NASA by 2017.

Mikulski ended the hearing by cautioning Bolden that "Though we agree on the goals, I'm not so sure we agree on some of the priorities" in the budget request.

Bolden was the only witness at the hearing.  NASA Inspector General Paul Martin also was supposed to appear, but Mikulski said that the committee schedule had been impacted by upcoming votes in the Senate and it was not possible.   Martin's written statement is posted on the NASA OIG website.

 

 


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