Chairman Rockefeller Remarks on Realizing NASA's Potential: Programmatic Challenges in the 21st Century

March 15, 2011

Chairman RockefellerWASHINGTON, D.C.—I would like to welcome all of our witnesses here this afternoon to discuss NASA’s progress and challenges in implementing the NASA Authorization Act of 2010. No conversation on implementation, however, would be complete without also discussing the destructive impact that sporadic funding is having on NASA’s mission and priorities. 

NASA continues to be an agency in transition. After 30 years and 135 flights, the Space Shuttle program is retiring. Just last week, we watched Discovery’s last mission. There is a great anticipation about what’s next for NASA after the shuttle program comes to a close.

NASA’s shuttle program has led to major scientific successes and discoveries. It’s launched and repaired the Hubble Space Telescope, sent up the world's most powerful X-ray telescope, opening a window to the universe, and completed construction of the International Space Station. The Space Station is of particular interest to me—not necessarily because of what it teaches us about space—but because of the discoveries it’s made that could improve the lives of every American. The shuttle also helped capture the imagination of a new generation of people too young to remember previous missions.

The space station itself recently passed a milestone of its own. Last November marked 10 years of a continuous human presence on the space station. Much of that time has been devoted to construction, but the astronauts on board still found time to conduct more than 1,200 experiments that supported the research of more than 1,600 scientists worldwide.

One very significant discovery is that some bacteria—such as Salmonella and Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA)—become more aggressive in causing disease in the station’s microgravity environment. I think everyone here is familiar with the enormous public health risk posed by antibiotic resistant bacteria. Any progress we can make on this front will pay dividends for years to come. This discovery is helping scientists develop potential vaccines for both of these infections and, if successful, would save thousands of lives each year. For these reasons and for the scientific promise of future exploration, we need to get NASA’s transition right. 

Exploration, however, can take many forms and there is one area of the President’s FY 2012 budget request for NASA that particularly concerns me. That’s the funding requested for NASA’s education programs. The FY 2012 request is $138 million, which is nearly $42 million less than what was enacted for FY 2010. Teaching our students science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) has never been more important to innovating and competing in this global economy. In recent visits to schools in my own state of West Virginia, I have seen first-hand the success these programs have in inspiring our next generation of scientists and engineers. NASA’s Space Grant Program, for example, can be found in each and every state across the country. In my own state, the program funds fellowships and scholarships for students pursuing STEM careers at West Virginia University, Marshall University, and other colleges and universities around the state. 

NASA’s EPSCoR—or Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research—is another education program working to improve STEM research and development in the aerospace field. In West Virginia alone over the past 5 years, this competitive program has supported hundreds of students and faculty in their research, resulted in millions of dollars in new funding, supported more than 100 scientific papers, and led to new patents. This type of program allows every state to fully participate in the research activities that lead to new discoveries, create new jobs and educate our workforce.

I would again like to thank our witnesses for being here today. I look forward to their testimony.