Congress Says No to STEM Reorganization, Not Yet to Asteroid Mission

Congress Says No to STEM Reorganization, Not Yet to Asteroid Mission

As part of its action on the FY2014 Omnibus Appropriations bill, the House and Senate appropriations committees rejected the Obama Administration’s controversial reorganization plan for STEM education funding and said it would take a lot more work by NASA before they decide on the fate of the President’s proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).

Both initiatives, though substantively unrelated to each other, share the distinction of coming as a surprise to Congress early last year. 

The Administration’s plan to reorganize how the government manages programs to promote Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education affected many more agencies than NASA, but the NASA community was the most vocal in its opposition.   At the top level, the plan, developed over several years by the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) and its National Science and Technology Council, sought to consolidate activities funded by 13 agencies into three agencies:  the Department of Education for K-12 programs, the National Science Foundation for college and university programs, and the Smithsonian Institution for informal education.

NASA funds a significant amount of STEM education activities not only through its Office of Education, but by funding that, under NASA policy, is set aside in each of NASA’s science programs (1 percent of each program’s budget).  Scientists associated with NASA’s science programs were flabbergasted that the money would be sent to the Department of Education, which had no expertise and reportedly only one person assigned to STEM education, or transferred to NASA’s own Office of Education and they would have to compete to obtain it to support their program-related activities.

The report accompanying the Omnibus Appropriations bill released last night makes clear that although Congress appreciates efforts to make STEM programs more efficient and effective, this is not the plan:  “The proposal contained no clearly defined implementation plan, had no buy-in from the education community and failed to sufficiently recognize or support a number of proven, successful programs.  Accordingly, the agreement [on the Omnibus] does not adopt the reorganization.”  The issue is not dead, however.  The language in the OSTP portion of the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) section of the report directs OSTP to try again, this time using an “inclusive development process,” and Congress will reconsider that future proposal.  No time is suggested for when that might be.

The Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) similarly received underwhelming support in the Omnibus bill.  The Obama Administration proposed ARM last year as a variation of its 2010 directive that NASA’s next step in human spaceflight be a mission to an asteroid.   In the ARM concept, rather than sending astronauts on a several month journey into deep space to rendezvous with an asteroid, a robotic spacecraft would fly to an asteroid already headed in Earth’s direction and nudge it into a lunar orbit.  The astronauts then would be sent to study the asteroid in lunar orbit, a much shorter trip and within the capabilities of the early versions of the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion spacecraft.

The idea failed to win support in Congress or with NASA”s international partners.  A Global Exploration Roadmap produced by the United States and 11 other countries as part of the International Space Exploration Coordination Group (ISECG) made clear that all the other countries remain focused on sending astronauts to the Moon as the next “beyond low Earth orbit” destination.  Only the United States champions the ARM mission.

For its part, the House Science, Space and Technology Committee reported out its version of a 2013 NASA Authorization Act that prohibits spending any funds on ARM.  The bill cleared committee on a party line vote and has not advanced further, but a Democratic alternative offered by Rep. Donna Edwards did not endorse ARM either.  That bill, and two bills in the Democratically-controlled Senate (the Senate Commerce Committee’s version of the 2013 NASA authorization act, and the Senate Appropriations Committee’s report on the FY2014 CJS appropriations bill), were silent on the proposal, as though it did not exist.   The House Appropriations CJS bill said that the idea needed more thought and agreed studies could be conducted, therefore neither approving nor prohibiting it.

The CJS portion of the FY2014 Omnibus Appropriations bill, which reflects a compromise between the House and Senate CJS subcommittees, essentially adopts the House position, saying neither no nor yes, but that more work is needed before they’ll sign on.  “While ARM is still an emerging concept, NASA has not provided Congress with satisfactory justification materials such as detailed cost estimates or impacts to ongoing missions.  The completion of significant preliminary activities is needed to appropriately lay the groundwork for the ARM prior to NASA and Congress making a long term commitment to this mission concept.”

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