NASA flying high with budget approval, top priorities in place

Tuesday - 11/29/2011, 12:09pm EST

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden

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By Michael O'Connell
Web Editor
Federal News Radio

When a congressional conference committee passed a 2012 budget resolution for some government agencies last week, NASA ended up with a budget not far from its original request. This came in the wake of the agency receiving its first clean financial audit opinion in nine years, something that helped its credibility with lawmakers on Capitol Hill.

"Anytime you can demonstrate that, at least, you seem to know what you're doing in the fiscal arena, then you've gained some credibility everywhere," NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said.

He spoke to the Federal Drive with Tom Temin and Amy Morris about the space agency's priorities for the coming years.

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (NASA)

"Our task is to demonstrate to Congress and the American public that we are good stewards of their money, that know how to manage it and we will keep close hold on it and get the most efficient, effective use of every dollar that we get," he said.

After much talking, NASA, Congress and the White House have set the agency's top three priorities for the next five years:

  • NASA will develop a space launch system, which is a heavy-lift launch vehicle that will carry a multi-purpose crew vehicle for NASA's exploration programs.

  • NASA will extend and enhance the use of the International Space Station to at least 2020. This will be combined with establishing a capability of reaching low-earth orbit through commercial means.

  • In the science arena, NASA will develop the James Webb Space Telescope.

"What paid dividends for us was continual communications with Congress and the White House on where we thought priorities should be," Bolden said.

Bolden sees NASA as an agency that responds to the needs of the nation and to the international community in the areas of science and exploration. "We have to be flexible to what comes from the Congress and the White House, but also responsive to things that come through like decadal surveys in the areas of science to what's being asked for by the broader science and aeronautics community."

After the space shuttle

In accessing space, NASA is working diligently with a number of commercial partners like Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Blue Origin, SpaceX and Orbital to develop low-earth-orbit capabilities.

At the same time, NASA is working with its international partners to develop a heavy-lift vehicle with "the new technologies that are necessary to make it viable for going to destinations that are much beyond low-earth orbit," such as the moon, Mars or asteroids, Bolden said.

"The ultimate destination is Mars," Bolden said. "That decision has been made quite some time ago by people long before me. President [Barack] Obama has allowed us to focus our efforts on that, and so, the design of the heavy-lift launch vehicle and the multi-purpose crew vehicle is specifically to evolve to a vehicle that can get us to Mars in the 2030s."

In the meantime, NASA needs to be able to travel to intermediate destinations in order to learn how to make it safe for humans to travel long distances in space. Some of these new technologies will be tested on the International Space Station, the moon or on the way to an asteroid.

Number five and climbing

NASA was also named one of the best places to work in government in a recent survey conducted by the Partnership for Public Service.

"Number five is OK, but it's not number one," Bolden said, with a laugh. "Let it be known by all others ahead of us that we're coming after them. We want to be the number one best place to work in government." He explained that NASA spends a lot of time on "people issues" because it's a "people organization" that values the input of its workers. "No matter how wild their idea, they can introduce it and we'll give a thought to it."

NASA employee Matthew Ritsko recently received a SAVE Award for coming up with the idea of creating a tool "lending library."

When Bolden first came in as NASA administrator, the agency was under a cloud of uncertainty about the direction it was heading. Now that NASA's priorities have gelled and a budget is in place that uncertainty has dissipated.

"I get up in the morning anxious to come to work and come home feeling like we've really made a difference in the lives of people in the world," Bolden said. "But, I think that the Congress and the Administration have been working diligently over the last 2-1/2 years. ... They have settled on three top priorities. As long as you can prioritize, any organization can decide how it wants to go about doing things."

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