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Summary of Hearings on NASA Programs (8-07-08)

  • July 30, 2008: House Science and Technology Committee hearing on “NASA at 50: Past Accomplishments and Future Opportunities and Challenges”
  • June 7, 2007: Space, Aeronautics, and Related Sciences Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee hearing on "Oversight Review of the Investigation of the NASA Inspector General."

House Science and Technology Committee hearing on “NASA at 50: Past Accomplishments and Future Opportunities and Challenges”
July 30, 2008

Witnesses:
Honorable John Glenn, Retired Senator, Ohio
Mr. Norman Augustine, Retired CEO, Lockheed Martin
Dr. Maria Zuber, Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences Head, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
Dr. Stephen Hawking, Theoretical Physicist and Mathematician, Cambridge University (prerecorded audio message)

Members Present:

Bart Gordon, Chairman (D-TN)

Ralph Hall, Ranking Member (R-TX)

Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX)

Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA)

Lynn Woolsey (D-CA)

Randy Neugebauer (R-TX)

David Wu (D-OR)

Bob Inglis (R-SC)

Brian Baird (D-WA)

Adrian Smith (R-NE)

Brad Miller (D-NC)

 

Dan Lipinski (D-IL)

 

Nicholas Lampson (D-TX)

 

Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ)

 

Gerald McNerney (D-CA)

 

Laura Richardson (D-CA)

 

Donna Edwards (D-MD)

 

Steven Rothman (D-NJ)

 

Charlie Melancon (D-LA)

 

Charlie Wilson (D-OH)

 

André Carson (D-IN)

 

July 2008 marked the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the House Committee on Science and Technology, formerly the House Committee on Science and Astronautics, and the subsequent creation of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) on July 29, 1958.  The full committee hearing was held to highlight the significant accomplishments of NASA over the past 50 years as well as to discuss what steps are needed to maintain U.S. leadership in space over the next 50 years.  Looking to the future, the committee members asked what role NASA should play in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) education and research.

The Committee wanted to re-examine NASA funding in light of President Bush’s “Vision for Space Exploration (VSE),” that aims to send humans back to the Moon and to Mars, and the fact that NASA’s budget has not increased significantly over the past ten years.  As Ranking Member Ralph Hall (R-TX) put it, “The future challenges are no less daunting or inspiring.”  Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) reflected on the many influential accomplishments of NASA and its positive reflection on the U.S.  He continued by expressing the need to give positive guidance to the next administration.  The House passed the NASA Authorization Act of 2008, H.R. 6063, which provides an increase in funding for NASA in fiscal year 2009.  Gordon hopes the Senate will pass the bill soon to demonstrate the need to invest in the nation’s space programs, especially “investing at a level that is equal to the tasks we have asked the agency to undertake.”

The witnesses supported the chairman’s objectives in their testimony.  They celebrated the past achievements of NASA and urged continued support for key NASA programs.  Former Ohio senator and astronaut John Glenn talked about the long line of space missions in just 50 years saying, “It has been a wondrous half-century.”  He commended NASA’s abilities to do “macro and micro” exploration, macro being the exploration of outer space and micro being onboard scientific research to maximize returns on the missions.  Norman Augustine talked about how the Cold War era space race improved public school education and attracted young people to science and engineering fields.  Dr. Maria Zuber emphasized the broad range of scientific studies and discoveries of which NASA has been a part.  The studies of other terrestrial planets and the moon have improved understanding of the solar system as well as the planet Earth.  She named some key Earth science contributions from NASA, including understanding atmospheric composition, finding the hole in the ozone, mapping ocean circulation patterns, and measuring the motions of the tectonic plates.  Dr. Stephen Hawking also testified by video and cited the ability of NASA to look back at Earth to help provide data on environmental problems and climate change. 

The witnesses had many concerns for the future of NASA and more broadly science and humanity.  The concerns ranged from mild to dire.  As Hawking said, “[Space exploration] could completely change the future of the human race and could determine if we have a future at all.”  He related space exploration to the exploration of Columbus by pointing out that “many may have thought it was a waste of money to send Columbus on that wild goose chase, yet the discovery of the new world made a profound difference to the old.  Just think we wouldn’t have KFC or the Big Mac.” 

The other witnesses focused on the decline of U.S. presence in manned space operations, lack of funding, and lack of inspiration.  Glenn was concerned about U.S. reliance on the Russians if the space shuttle is decommissioned as planned in Bush’s space vision, leaving the U.S. without shuttle capabilities for at least 5 years.  He was also concerned with Bush’s space vision itself, wondering “just who advised the President on some of the VSE proposals” since this new costly mission is not in addition to, but replaces the existing NASA missions without increased funding.  Despite the problems, Glenn saw the VSE as a means of inspiring young people about science in the future like the Apollo missions did in the past.  Zuber and Augustine were also concerned about the current lack of inspiration.  Augustine stressed the declining number of graduates in science and the positive role NASA could have for science education.  He summed it up by saying, “In my own experience, nothing excites kids more than space and dinosaurs…and we’re short on the later.”  

Recommendations from the witnesses all followed a common theme: excite people about science.  They wanted increased and stable funding for NASA and a focus on research and science education in the future to maintain U.S. competitiveness and innovation.  Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) asked the witnesses how to achieve these goals.  Augustine and Zuber advocated that science teachers should major in a science subject to better educate students.  Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) suggested summer programs to bring teachers up to speed and to improve their ability to speak on science issues.  She also wanted to increase public expectations for students and teachers in order to stop students from just taking the easiest courses.  “It pains me every time someone tells me they have a degree in political science if they aren’t going to get a PhD or sociology if they are not going to get a PhD,” she said.  Zuber, harking back to inspiration, explained that students need to see something that makes taking the harder math classes worthwhile.  Tangible programs that can be seen and get people excited are “goals young people can believe in,” according to Augustine.  Zuber told Gordon in response to his question about the needs of STEM programs that the U.S. should have creative programs that do not require measured success to promote innovation and new ideas.  As Glenn explained, “Whoever leads in [education and research] leads in the world.”

Glenn said to achieve manned space flight goals research spending needs to be viewed as beneficial instead of wasteful.  He cited past research in fertilizers that at first had no clear goal, but led to the unintended consequence of increased food production and quality.  In his testimony, Glenn requested about $3 billion a year for NASA to keep the shuttle operational, the research projects functioning, and the launch personnel trained as well as to maintain credibility in the worldview.  NASA’s goal has been “to improve life here, to extend life to there, and to find life beyond,” he said, however “a great plan without resources remains a dream.”

Representative Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) asked the witnesses, “What would you cut to get a few billion dollars to focus on launch capability?”  Glenn retorted that the budget is $3 trillion dollars and that a couple billion dollars can be found somewhere in that.  Zuber and Augustine answered more proactively, though cautiously, by suggesting that new initiatives should not be started without appropriate funding.  As Augustine put it, “We are measured by what we finish not what we start.” 
 
In their recommendations for the future, the witnesses concluded that in order to remain competitive in space and science in general the U.S. needs to invest in science education and research.  “Will the U.S. be viewed as the greatest nation on Earth if China is walking on the moon and not us?” Zuber asked.  She recommended stable funding to move science research forward that is essential to both the space and Earth sciences.  Glenn asserted, “I don’t want us just going up to space and coming back waving a Styrofoam finger saying ‘We’re #1!’  We need longer term goals.”  Hawking called for the long-term aim of getting a human colony in space with a station on the Moon by 2020 and a mission to Mars by 2030.  The long-term goals of the other witnesses centered on inspiration for young people.  The witnesses all concluded that, if adequately funded, NASA could accomplish its goals.  As Augustine concluded in his testimony, “I believe that America can take enormous pride in what NASA has accomplished these past fifty years—all of which, to America’s great credit, has been done in the glare of the public spotlight.  NASA, like any other organization populated with humans, is not perfect—but if it sets perfection as a goal I am confident that we will have much to look forward to in the next fifty years.”

Links to witness testimony are found here.

-CCD

Space, Aeronautics, and Related Sciences Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee of the House Science and Technology Committee hearing on "Oversight Review of the Investigation of the NASA Inspector General."
June 7, 2007

Witnesses:
Panel 1:
Ms. Debra Herzog, Senior Specialist Office of the Inspector General, U.S. Postal Service
Mr. Kevin Carson, Assistant Inspector General for Audits Office of the Inspector General, Government Printing Office
Mr. Lance Carrington, Deputy Assistant Inspector General Investigations Office of the Inspector General, U.S. Postal Service
Ms. Danielle Brian, Executive Director Project on Government Oversight
Dr. Paul Light, Paulette Goddard Professor of Public Service at the Robert Wagner School of Public Service, New York University

Panel 2:
The Honorable Robert W. Cobb, Inspector General Office of Inspector General, National Aeronautics and Space Administration

On June 7, 2007 the Senate Aeronautics and Related Sciences Subcommittee of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee and the House Investigations and Oversight Subcommittee of the Science and Technology Committee met for a joint hearing to investigate allegations of misconduct of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Inspector General (IG), Mr. Robert Cobb. The allegations of misconduct are based on a six month investigation done by the President's Council on Integrity and Efficiency (PCIE). The Office of Inspector General (OIG) was created in 1978 by the Inspector General Act. The role of an IG as stated by the PCIE is to "report on current performance and accountability and to foster good program management to ensure effective government operations." This includes conducting and supervising audits and investigations relating to the respective agencies and informing Congress and agency heads of problems within operations and programs and present possible solutions to those problems. To perform this task it is essential that IG's remain objective and independent by remaining free from conflicts of interest.

According to PCIE, Cobb had "abused his authority and exhibited the appearance of a lack of independence from NASA management." Both committees expressed disapproval of Cobb's actions and conveyed a feeling of mistrust of his continued leadership as NASA IG. Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) stated that the mission of an IG is to act as a "watch dog" on agencies to prevent fraud and abuse and that it is impossible to carry out this task if there is any lack of independence. Gordon quoted Senator Charles Grassley (R-IA) who said that Mr. Cobb stated to employees that one of his main objectives was to "avoid embarrassing NASA." Grassley also alluded to Mr. Cobb's mishandling of search warrants related to investigations against NASA officials. Despite the general consensus that Cobb be removed from his position as IG for NASA, there were a minority of members from both committees that did not call for his immediate resignation. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) called this hearing a part of an examination and would not call for his resignation at this time. She added that she hoped the committee would remain objective through out the proceedings. Congressman Tom Feeney (R-FL) shared Hutchison's sentiments and added he does not hold any prejudice against Cobb.

The first three witnesses (Herzog, Carson, and Carrington) were all former employees under Mr. Cobb and each testified against Cobb by recounting their own personal experiences while working for him. In Ms. Herzog's testimony she described several instances where Mr. Cobb used profane and harsh language to demean and ridicule her as well as other employees. Herzog also mentioned two instances where she believed Mr. Cobb interfered with federal search warrants. Herzog stated that Cobb would not allow the warrants to proceed until he had read the affidavits. After reading them Cobb thought the warrants were unnecessary and was concerned about what NASA administrators would think. The warrants were eventually granted after much delay. However, Cobb showed little interest in warrants that did not pertain to NASA officials. Herzog concluded that she questions Cobb's independence and his "arrogance and bullying style…has demoralized the IG workforce."

Mr. Carson testified on Cobb's interference of auditors to do their necessary job. Carson stated that the normal audit report would take an average of three to four months however, soon after Cobb took over, this process was delayed because of his constant revisions and re-writing of audit reports that could potentially embarrass NASA. Carson added that he felt Cobb showed a general feeling of "disrespect" toward auditors by using foul language and intimidation tactics. According to Carson, Cobb would also share audit report findings with the agency for comment and review before the official release. In one particular instance an audit report on the International Space Station (ISS) was sent to the NASA General Counsel before an official draft release. The Counsel disagreed with a section of the report dealing with potential NASA noncompliance with international agreements on the ISS. The audit team was then ordered to remove that section or the audit report would not be released. Carson concluded from this instance and several other instances of misconduct that Cobb was unfit to remain as NASA IG.

Mr. Carrington concurred with his former colleagues about Mr. Cobb's misconduct. Carrington stated he was also subject to verbal harassment and abuse from Cobb. In the three years Carrington work as assistant inspector general for investigations Cobb frequently berated him for not doing a good job but never gave any recommendations of what to improve. Carrington also mentioned the instances of obstruction of justice by Cobb that were described by the previous 2 witnesses. If any NASA officials were subject to investigation Cobb would question every aspect of the case in what Carrington called an attempt to "derail" the investigations before agents could even begin their work. Carrington gave another example of Cobb's lack of independence when the Investigative Office in Houston was asked to assist the Texas Rangers in an alleged missing wedding ring of one of the female astronauts who perished in the Columbia space shuttle accident. The Rangers had exhausted their leads and were going to issue a crime stoppers alert to be distributed to the media. Carrington stated that Cobb was furious about the alert and as a result the investigation was halted. Carrington later discovered that the NASA Administrator, at that time Sean O'Keefe, had ordered Cobb not say or do anything related to the Columbia space shuttle astronauts. Carrington concluded that Cobb was upset because if the OIG issued an alert, Cobb would have been seen as disobeying a direct order from the NASA Administrator.

Mr. Cobb denounced the allegations brought against him. Cobb quoted an investigation done by the OIG of Housing and Urban Development by request of the Integrity Committee (IC) of the PCIE which found that Mr. Cobb had not acted unjustly or illegally. However, Mr. Cobb believes the negative conclusions reached by the IC report are "flawed and invalid" because the IC did not follow proper procedure by failing to submit any recommendations to the PCIE Chair. He continued that PCIE Chair did not feel it was necessary for a referral to the White House and that NASA would challenge the conclusions reached by the IC because they are "not based on law or facts…and without respect to even the most basic notions of due process and fairness." Mr. Cobb also quoted current NASA Administrator Michael Griffin, who said that Cobb has not abused his power, has not compromised safety and has demonstrated independence from NASA. Cobb concluded that he proudly stands behind the work he and his staff have done for the NASA OIG.

Not surprisingly, both committees expressed displeasure with allegations brought against Mr. Cobb. Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) in particular was unhappy to learn of the abuse reported by OIG staff especially the use of profane language in front of a woman. Despite numerous charts showing the significant drops in the number of audits done since Mr. Cobb took over as IG and a reduction in staff by 50%, Mr. Cobb firmly believes that he is a victim of PCIE regulations. Subcommittee Chairman Mark Udall (D-CO) concluded that given the loss of confidence from Congress in Mr. Cobb, the Administration should remove Mr. Cobb as NASA IG.

-DM

A link to witness testimony can be found here.

 

Sources: Hearing testimony.

Contributed by Corina Cerovski-Darriau, 2008 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern; David McCormick, 2007 AGI/AIPG Summer Intern

Please send any comments or requests for information to AGI Government Affairs Program.

Last updated on August 7, 2008.

 

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