|Senate Caps Space Station Funding
The perennial topic of the cost and schedule overruns for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s (NASA’s) largest international endeavor rose to the surface yet again, during a recent hearing before the House Committee on Science Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics. In opening remarks before a hearing on the International Space Station program, Committee Chairman, Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner, Jr. (R-WI), compared the Space Station to the Titanic. “The Titanic struck a single iceberg, with tragic consequences. The Space Station seems to be careening from one to the next, none of which has been big enough to sink the program,” he stated. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), Chairman of the Subcommittee, also underscored his exasperation by stating, “I don’t know how much more of the International Space Station program we can stand.” These were choice words for congressional leaders who fought long and hard to support the program; emphasizing the strain it has had to policymakers who must defend it on Capitol Hill.
Much of the concern addressed in the March 19 hearing centered on the station’s increasing cost overruns. During the FY 1998 budget authorization process, NASA notified Congress that the station program would require an additional $430 million in funding authority. The project’s cost overruns were due to Russia’s inability to provide the station’s Service Module on schedule, cost growth within the Boeing Company prime contract, and additional funding to avoid “future risks and unforeseen problems.” Of the $430 million requested, Congress approved only $230 million, through reallocation from the Space Shuttle budget and through additional appropriations. NASA now faces the task of convincing Congress that the remaining $200 million must still be approved.
To assist NASA in its quest for the remaining $200 million, the President requested $173 million in transfer authority to NASA as part of his FY 1998 emergency/non-emergency supplemental appropriations. Unfortunately, the requested transfer authority did not sit well with the members of the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee. As a transfer authority the $173 million would come from other NASA accounts, specifically funding within space science, earth science, aeronautics, and mission support. The prospect of transferring funds from scientific research programs prompted former-Subcommittee Chairman, Ralph Hall (D-TX) to ask why appropriators should even bother appropriating any funds to science accounts if NASA is inevitably going to move it to another program.
With delays to Russia’s contribution to the international program, schedule slips, and cost overruns to the prime contract, in order for the Space Station to be completely assembled requires an additional 18 months and $4 billion in added expense. NASA’s Associate Administrator for Space Flight, Joseph Rothenberg testified at the subcommittee hearing that the new price tag for the project was approximately $19.6 billion. The new projected costs to the station only accounts for research and development (R&D) necessary to build it, and does not take into consideration operational costs incurred to maintain the project after it is built. Rep. Rohrabacher asked whether the new price of the program accounted for funding since the project’s initial inception in 1984. Rothenburg stated that it did not, and that if one accounted for funds obligated since then the total cost would rise an additional $10 billion. He also emphasized that including obligated funds since 1984 would not be an accurate accounting of the current project’s cost given the fact that NASA was required by various Administrations to redesign the station numerous times, and also expanded its international partners to include Russia.
On the opposite side of Capitol Hill, lawmakers sent a signal to NASA that it will not tolerate any further slips to the schedule and increases to the programs costs. On March 12, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee passed a NASA reauthorization bill (S.1250; H.R. 1275), its first authorization bill for the agency in five years. The Senate bill, sponsored by Sen. Bill Frist (R-TN), includes language that limits NASA’s Space Station program costs to $21.9 billion through the final stage of assembly. With the current estimate of $19.6 billion so close to that cap, NASA plans to request an independent appraiser to determine the true cost of the beleaguered project.
NASA emphasizes that the additional $4 billion burden will not be placed squarely on the United States alone, and that a portion of that amount will be borne by Russia. Vice President Albert Gore met earlier in March with Russian Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin to discuss Russia’s pledge to support their portion of the International Space Station. Prime Minister Chernomyrdin stated to the U.S. delegation, which included NASA Administrator Dan Goldin, that they would honor its commitment to the program and provide the necessary funding to the Russian Space Agency.
With the future of the International Space Station tenuous at best within
our own Congress, activities around the world seem to collide with NASA’s
efforts to maintain control of the project. As if to add insult to
injury, shortly after the March 19 hearing, Russian President Boris Yeltsin
dismissed his entire Cabinet, including Prime Minister Chernomyrdin.
This certainly raises the question of whether the Russian Space Agency
will be capable of securing the funding that Vice President Gore was promised.
NASA space station program managers plan to visit the country in May to
establish whether their Russian partners will indeed be capable of meeting