Cantwell, Wicker Press Need for NASA Authorization Bill This Year

Cantwell, Wicker Press Need for NASA Authorization Bill This Year

The main focus of a Senate hearing today on NASA was the insistence by the committee’s bipartisan leadership for Congress to pass a new NASA authorization act to enable effective congressional oversight of the agency’s activities. The Senate passed a new bill last summer, but there has been no action in the House so the rhetoric seemed aimed at House and Senate leadership rather than the expert witnesses at the table.

Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee Chair Maria Cantwell (D-WA) and Ranking Member Roger Wicker (R-MS) vowed to include NASA authorization language in the final version of legislation intended to bolster U.S. science and technology competitiveness with China.

The Senate passed its bill, the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act (USICA), on June 8, 2021. It incorporates a NASA authorization bill as well as Wicker’s SPACE Act that deals with space situational awareness. The House passed a companion bill, the America Competes Act, last week, but it is quite different and says almost nothing about NASA or space. The Senate bill garnered bipartisan support. The House bill passed on virtually a party line vote.

Negotiating a compromise will be a tall order, but Cantwell and Wicker seem determined to succeed and include NASA.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Washington), Chair, Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, at February 9, 2022 subcommittee hearing on NASA. Screengrab.

The most recent NASA authorization bill was enacted in 2017, the NASA Transition Authorization Act (P.L. 115-10). Cantwell said today regular authorization bills “at least every five years” are needed if Congress is to do its job overseeing the agency’s activities. She also believes they would help make the case for increased NASA funding with her appropriations colleagues.

“This notion of going through the appropriations committees without the mission, the commitment, the foresight…I would say to you is why we haven’t been able always to get the budget we want to see, because we haven’t gotten everybody on board on the importance of this mission. Especially when you look at the overall budget for NASA, the numbers are not that great compared to all the other things that we’re doing in the federal government.”

Cantwell’s state is home to a number of aerospace companies including Blue Origin. She is a leading advocate for building two Human Landing Systems for the Artemis program. Congress provided only enough money for NASA to pick one, SpaceX, to the consternation of Blue Origin which contested the award and sued in federal court, but to no avail. Cantwell included $10 billion over five years for a second HLS in the NASA authorization bill that is part of USICA, but even if that eventually becomes law, it is only an authorization, not an appropriation.

She returned to the need for a new NASA autorization bill again and again during the hearing seeking and obtaining agreement from the five witnesses on the merits of passing one. NASA’s Jim Free, Associate Administrator for Exploration Systems Development, Jim Reuter, Associate Administrator for Space Technology, and Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator for Science all said they are looking forward to working with Congress to get a new bill. William Russell from the Government Accountability Office agreed  that “absolutely, authorization language helps give an agency direction.”

Scott Pace, Director, Space Policy Institute, George Washignton University, testifying at a Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation subcommittee hearing on NASA, February 9, 2022. Screengrab.

Scott Pace, Director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and a veteran space policy insider who was Executive Secretary of the White House National Space Council during the Trump Administration, offered perhaps the best rationale.

“There’s a story in the rocket business. What makes a rocket go up? Funding makes a rocket go up. What makes funding go up? Bipartisan support. … Steady bipartisan support … expressed through the authorization bill is one of the things that not only gives confidence I think to industry, it also gives confidence to our international partners that there is a steady hand and a steady direction.”

Overall, despite its title, “NASA Accountability and Oversight,” the hearing was a friendly event with few challenging questions and little news.

The most combative tone was struck by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) who argued that NASA should stick with the International Space Station rather than transition to buying services from companies operating their own low Earth orbit platforms.

Cruz represents NASA’s Johnson Space Center, which operates the ISS and is home to the NASA astronaut corps. He insisted the ISS is a “strategic national security asset” and part of how the United States “projects power around the world” in a way that renting space on a commercial platform will not. “When China starts saber rattling in the South China Sea, we don’t put Navy sailors on a Carnival cruise ship and send it to Asia, we send the real Navy.”

None of the NASA officials testifying at the hearing were responsible for the space station program so were not in a position to respond, but Pace countered that the Artemis program is an even better way to project U.S. leadership.

“I would agree with Senator Cruz that the station is a security asset and part of U.S. diplomacy. I would argue that the Artemis program is a bigger asset. The Gateway program out around the Moon has all of our major partners except Russia…. The station is important for shaping norms of behavior, but the Artemis program is an even bigger stage for that.”

Free reiterated the current Artemis schedule: roll-out of the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft to the launch pad in March for a test, after which the launch date for the uncrewed Artemis I test flight will be set; the first crew launch, Artemis II, in 2024; and the first lunar landing with Artemis III in 2025.

Witnesses at the February 9, 2022 Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation subcommittee hearing on NASA Accountability and Oversight, L-R: Jim Free, NASA AA for Exploration Systems Development; Jim Reuter, NASA AA for Space Technology; Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA AA for Science; Willlam Russell, Government Accountability Office; Scott Pace, George Washington University. Screengrab.

Cost overruns at NASA and especially on the $10 billion James Webb Space Telescope that was successfully launched on December 25 did come up. Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS), who serves not only on this committee but is the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science subcommittee that funds NASA, said he remembers debates over whether to cancel the program. Now he’s glad they didn’t, but he asked Zurbuchen what NASA learned from the experience.

Zurbuchen replied that a deep partnership is needed between NASA and its industry partners “taking advantage of what they can do” but also ensuring “deep oversight and insight, that is something we did a lot of learning on.” He noted that NASA has underrun collectively on the most recent 30 science missions by minus 2.2 percent, but if you include JWST, the number is an overrun of 3.8 percent, adding that the hard lessons learned from JWST are helping them better manage programs today.

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