Dear Mr. Goldin:
We are writing to request information regarding the recent decision by NASA to close the Neutral Buoyancy Simulator (NBS) at Marshall Space Flight Center (MSFC). As you know, this facility holds a unique place in the history of our nation's space program. In addition, this facility provides a back-up capability for Extravehicular Activity (EVA) training for Space Shuttle operations and could also do so for the International Space Station program. Lastly, there are a number of commercial uses to which this unique facility could clearly be put.
We are concerned that the NBS has been closed without adequate consideration given to the considerable programmatic, commercial, and historic contributions that this unique, world class facility has to offer.
First of all, it is our understanding that representatives from NASA Johnson Space Center (JSC) have stated that they do not have a requirement for either on-site or off-site back-up EVA training facilities to support the International Space Station and Space Shuttle programs. As such, we have been told by Dr. Littles that he cannot justify maintaining a facility for which he has been given no formal requirement to maintain.
We are concerned that the cost of maintaining a back-up EVA training capability - especially one which could be substantially offset by commercial usage, would be minimal when compared against the expense which might be incurred should the need to develop back-up or additional capabilities. The construction of new facilities at JSC not withstanding, we would also question why a time-honored practice wherein Houston-based astronauts have been trained in a Huntsville-based facility for more than 30 years is no longer considered feasible. The sudden need for contingency (hence unexpected) EVA training to alleviate problems on Mir (and in the 1970's for Skylab) being prime examples of the unexpected things which can happen.
One of the benefits of NBS closure mentioned by Dr. Littles would be the transfer of all MSFC/NBS EVA suits to the Russian space program for use in their own water training facility. It is our understanding that JSC has requested all of these EVA suits for just that purpose. None the less, it is also our understanding that the Russian government has told NASA that they neither desire nor need these spacesuits.
Secondly, we are concerned that a number of commercial ventures which would have made use of this facility were not given sufficient consideration when it was decided to close the NBS. This is of special concern right now to this committee as we pursue work on HR 1702, the Commercial Space Act of 1997, on a bipartisan basis. We have been made aware of at least 4 commercialization ventures being negotiated under the provisions of the Space Act of 1958 relating to the use of government-owned facilities. We understand that these discussions were at a very mature level of negotiation at the time the decision to close the NBS was made. It is our understanding that these ventures would have covered a significant portion of the cost of operating this facility while also preserving the facility for historical purposes and possible contingency EVA training use by NASA.
Finally, the NBS facility has been designated as a National Historic Landmark in recognition of its role in our nation's space program. Indeed, it was in this very facility that astronauts practiced the emergency procedures used to fix the crippled Skylab, America's first space station. It is also the facility where considerable training has been performed in the development of the International Space Station. As such, we are concerned that decommissioning this facility might adversely affect its preservation.
It is our understanding that the MSFC Facilities Office has been in contact with the appropriate offices of the state of Alabama regarding the legal requirements (state and federal) of preserving such a landmark. Further, we understand that both NASA Public Affairs and Space and Rocket Center tour activities in and around the NBS will be stopped. It is difficult to see how people can appreciate the significance of a landmark, much of which is indoors, if they are not allowed access to the either the outside or the inside of the facility.
As part of this committee's continuing oversight responsibility, we request that NASA provide the following information. Further, we respectfully request that the closure of the NBS be immediately put on hold until such time as these items are supplied to, reviewed by, and responded to by this committee:
1. Commercialization: It is our understanding that a commercialization plan was under development between MSFC and various private concerns. Please provide a description of the commercialization agreements which were either signed or in the process of negotiation at the time the decision was made to close the NBS. Please include a description of the nature of the proposed activities as well as the portion of the overall NBS operating expenses which would have been provided by each of these various commercial agreements. We understand that Dr. Littles has expressed a reluctance to support these commercialization activities citing a decreasing supply of institutional funds with which to do so. Please provide a description of what level of financial support would have been required of MSFC in order to make these commercial plans feasible.
2. Back-up EVA Training Capability: Please describe the procedures JSC has baselined to deal with contingency EVA training should JSC facilities either be over-booked or made inoperable due to mechanical or other unforeseen problems. Since Russia has declined the offer of the MSFC NBS space suits, please describe what these suits will be used for inasmuch as JSC has stated that they have no need for additional EVA facilities or hardware. Also, please provide a description of the final disposition of other NBS hardware such as the RMS (Remote Manipulator System) training apparatus, and all other training hardware.
3. Historical Landmark Status: In the event of shutdown and decommissioning, please describe the plans for preserving this facility in compliance with all applicable state and federal statutes; the funds with which these legal requirements are to be met; and the timeline for implementing these activities. Also, please provide a description of the plans whereby this facility will be made available to both NASA MSFC such that the historical significance of these facilities is fully accessible to all visitors.
This committee is fully cognizant of the fiscal constraints and programmatic consolidations which comprise NASA's streamlining and reinvention processes. It is, none the less, part of this committee's responsibility to ensure that these processes happen in a fashion that is not only programatically logical but one which is also fiscally responsible and in the citizenry's best interests.