WASHINGTON — Maj. Gen. Charles F. Bolden Jr., the administrator of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, faced skeptical, sometimes hostile questioning on Thursday from members of a key House committee who said they opposed the Obama administration’s plans to revamp the nation’s human spaceflight program.
General Bolden told the Committee on Science and Technology that the president’s $19 billion budget proposal for NASA — which would cancel the agency’s program to send astronauts back to the Moon, invest in new space technologies and turn to commercial companies for transportation beyond low-Earth orbit — would provide a “more affordable and more sustainable” approach to space exploration.
But the committee’s chairman, Representative Bart Gordon, Democrat of Tennessee, said the proposal represented “a radical change” and “has raised as many questions as it has answered.”
It was the second time in two days that General Bolden had sought to defend the administration’s plans. On Wednesday, he appeared before the Senate Subcommittee on Commerce, Justice and Space. In addition, John P. Holdren, the president’s science adviser, faced a number of barbed comments and questions at two other hearings Wednesday.
Notably, those speaking out against the changes are not just members of Congress representing Alabama, Florida and Texas — the homes of the NASA centers that would be most directly affected by the cancellation of the rockets and spacecraft that make up the current program, known as Constellation.
“I was against privatization in the Bush administration,” Representative David Wu, Democrat of Oregon, said at Thursday’s session. “I am against privatization in the Obama administration.”
Mr. Wu told General Bolden that he doubted there was much profit for commercial companies beyond the NASA business. “I would encourage the administration and your agency to consider whether this is premature, whether this is wise and whether this dooms us to a future where there are no Americans in space, or at least the dominant language in space is not English,” Mr. Wu said.
NASA has spent $9 billion and five years working on Constellation, and the budget proposal allocates an additional $2.5 billion for canceling the current contracts. General Bolden acknowledged to the House committee that the space agency was still compiling the actual costs.
Representative Lincoln Davis, Democrat of Tennessee, said he had also yet to be convinced of the administration’s arguments.
“Until we have more discussions, I will be one advocate for continuing the program that we have,” Mr. Davis said. “You must convince me that the vision that I’m not seeing, that you have, that you’re proposing, is better than Constellation.”
Mr. Gordon praised aspects of the budget, like increased financing for science and next-generation technologies, but expressed reservations about turning over the launching of astronauts to the private sector. He said he was concerned that the federal government would end up bailing out the private companies because they were “too important to fail.”
General Bolden responded that NASA had not conducted market surveys on the viability of commercial space companies. “I am depending upon surveys and on information that has come from the industry itself,” he said.
Mr. Gordon said that was not an acceptable answer. “This is a little bit like the fox looking after the henhouse,” he said. “Certainly NASA needs to look into this.”
Many of the members in attendance also criticized the lack of details in the budget proposal. General Bolden apologized repeatedly for not briefing members of Congress before the budget was announced Feb. 1, and for delays in providing more information.
As much as the members of Congress disliked the proposed changes, it is also unlikely that Congress will decide to provide the money to continue the current Constellation program.
Dr. Holdren, in testimony to the House science committee a day earlier, pointed to a blue-ribbon panel last year that concluded that the Constellation program needed $45 billion to $60 billion from 2010 to 2020 to succeed.
Dr. Holdren said the revamped human spaceflight program could achieve its goals “sooner, faster, safer and cheaper than what could realistically have been achieved under the old approach.”
On Wednesday, Senator Bill Nelson, Democrat of Florida and chairman of the Senate subcommittee on space, suggested the idea of using test flights of the Ares I — never referring to it by name, but instead calling it Rocket X — as a backup to the commercial efforts and to maintain portions of the current NASA work force.
However, that would essentially continue the work of Constellation under another name and continue NASA’s conundrum of how to achieve all of its mandates with limited money.