U.S. Senator Katie Britt: ‘We Must Continue to Invest’ in Important Marshall Space Flight Center Programs

May 31, 2024

NASA Administrator: Alabama ‘inextricably entwined in the success of NASA and our Moon to Mars program’

WASHINGTON, D.C., May 31, 2024 — U.S. Senator Katie Britt (R-Ala.) last week participated in a Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies hearing regarding the Fiscal Year 2025 National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Science Foundation (NSF) budgets. The hearing featured the testimony of NASA Administrator Bill Nelson and NSF Director Sethuraman Panchanathan.

In Senator Britt’s line of questioning, she began by praising NASA Marshall Space Flight Center’s newest director, Joseph Pelfrey, as well as Marshall’s entire team of staff members and vendors who support everything from day-to-day operations to missions that advance research and space exploration and critical national security priorities.

Senator Britt continued by highlighting the many important programs led by NASA’s center in Huntsville, including the Space Launch System (SLS), Human Landing System (HLS), and Nuclear Thermal Propulsion (NTP). She advocated for continued investment in the programs, after supporting funding in the Fiscal Year 2024 Commerce, Justice, Science, and Related Agencies Appropriations Act that was enacted earlier this year.

Additionally, Senator Britt questioned Administrator Nelson on whether he believed NASA has the adequate resources to ensure the Artemis II mission does not experience further delays. He affirmed that Artemis II is currently “meeting all the milestones” to maintain its scheduled launch date of September 2025.

Senator Britt also noted her concerns with aspects of NASA’s Vision 2040 initiative, specifically the importance of allowing NASA centers, like Marshall Space Flight Center, to retain “direct oversight” over their programs. Administrator Nelson agreed to inform Senator Britt of additional Vision 2040 updates, stating that Alabama is “inextricably entwined in the success of NASA.”

A transcript of Senator Britt’s line of questioning follows:

BRITT: Thank you so much Chairwoman Shaheen and Vice Chair Moran for having the subcommittee hearing to discuss NASA and the National Science Foundation’s FY25 budget request. [I] certainly appreciate the two of you being here in front of us today.

I want to take this opportunity to express my thanks and appreciation to the civil servants, the suppliers, the contractors, all of [whom] work tirelessly to continue to support the missions at Marshall Space Flight Center.

I want to note for the record that I have [absolute] full faith and confidence in Marshall’s newest director, Director Joseph Pelfrey. He has done a tremendous job and I’m excited to continue to be able to work with him.

Administrator Nelson, I understand the budget realities and fiscal constraints that you were under when formulating this budget request, and I just want to say thank you. Thank you for continuing to fund several of Marshall’s key priorities that are critical to carrying out so many of the missions, the Space Launch System, the Human Landing System, and the Nuclear Thermal Propulsion. I am greatly appreciative and look forward to working with you on each of those.

I know we must continue to invest in these important programs, and I want to thank Chairwoman Shaheen and Vice Chair Moran for their commitment to making sure that these are properly funded.

Maintaining the Artemis mission schedule is imperative to ensuring that we beat China back to the moon. However, earlier this year, NASA revealed that because of various safety and hardware issues, the Artemis II mission is now delayed until September 2025, so nearly one year behind schedule.

I appreciate NASA’s diligence and addressing these issues, specifically the heat shield in Orion, [the] spacecraft where the crew will be housed. The safety and well-being of our astronauts is of the utmost importance, so I appreciate you making sure that that is a priority.

Administrator, question for you. Are you properly resourced to address the safety and hardware issues to ensure that Artemis II can safely launch and is not further delayed?

NELSON: I can assure you, we will not launch until it’s ready. We have had to make tough choices and in this budget for expiration, we are down a half a billion dollars. We will make do with that. We are still on the schedule for September of (20)25. Artemis II is meeting all the milestones. We are doing extra examination of some of the unusual things that happened on the heat shield, and obviously we’re not going to fly that until we’re ready.

BRITT: Thank you. And Mr. Administrator, if there is anything that is going to delay that further, I would just love a commitment from you that we can continue this conversation. So if there are things that we need to be doing for you, [make sure] I’m aware of that and we can do our very best to make sure we put safety first and we also stay on time.

Another question in that vein. I am the daughter of two small business owners, and I understand how uncertainty negatively impacts sometimes the little guy the most. So as you consider the industrial base for SLS, many of the suppliers are very small companies. And I would argue these hardworking folks, many of whom are Alabamians, are the backbone to continued success in missions all across our country, but certainly there with SLS.

I just want to associate myself, since I am almost out of time, with Senator Peters’ comments on just continuing to make sure that we place emphasis on these small businesses. It is my opinion that in order to maintain the industrial base capabilities and supply chains that these people have irreplaceable knowledge and skills. So it is critically important that we think about this as these delays occur there’s continued work for them to be doing.

I want to switch gears real quick before I’m finished to NASA’s Vision 2040. I believe it’s important to bring NASA into the 21st century and ensure that we retain a skilled workforce while also continuing to recruit the best and brightest talent.

However, there are several aspects of Vision 2040 that do give me some concern. It’s my understanding that Vision 2040 recommends that the program managers who oversee many of NASA’s critical programs will now report directly to headquarters. I strongly believe that our centers who are responsible for the success of NASA programs, whether it’d be SLS or Spacesuits or Exploration Ground Systems, should retain their direct oversight and responsibilities of their program managers, their workforce, and their program’s long term success.

So Mr. Administrator, I would like for NASA to increase transparency here and would like to get a commitment from you to just keep me informed of any additional Vision 2040 recommendations before they’re implemented?

NELSON: Well, of course.

BRITT: Thank you so much.

NELSON: I want to recommend that you talk to Joseph Pelfrey about your concern that things are going to go flying off to other states.

BRITT: Okay, I’ll do it.

NELSON: The program office is in Washington for Moon to Mars. That was the same during Apollo. The program office was where you can bring everything together. Now, you ask about suppliers for Artemis. You have 85 companies in Alabama that are suppliers. The amount of money NASA sends to Alabama is, is $2.7 billion each year. That’s about 14% of NASA’s entire budget.

BRITT: And boy we’re grateful.

NELSON: And that includes 24,000 direct NASA employees. So Alabama is a very big part of what is happening and is inextricably entwined in the success of NASA and our Moon to Mars program.

BRITT: Thank you so much Mr. Administrator. We’re really proud of the work that is done in our great state and excited to continue to see it happen here, and thank you for your commitment.

May I say just one more thing? I realize I am out of time, Madam Chairwoman. Director Panch, I just want to say, I am out of time and she has being so gracious to allow me to say this, I would like to just associate myself with Chairwoman Shaheen’s comments, Senator Reed’s comments, (and) Senator Heinrich’s comments.

Just when we’re taking a look at [EPSCoR] Track-1, I have great concerns. I’m out of time, and I appreciate the grace, but if you will just associate me with [their] comments on this and know that it is a concern that I have deeply as well. Thank you.

Video of Senator Britt’s line of questioning can be found here, and high-quality video for media use can be downloaded here.