Draft NASA Authorization Bill — Wait and See on ISS Transition, WFIRST

Draft NASA Authorization Bill — Wait and See on ISS Transition, WFIRST

The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee will mark up a FY2018-2019 NASA authorization bill, H.R. 5503, on Tuesday.  The bill addresses the future of the International Space Station (ISS) and the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST) among its many provisions.  NASA submitted a congressionally-required ISS Transition Plan to Congress on March 30.  President Trump is proposing termination of WFIRST.  On both issues, the bill takes a wait-and-see approach.

ISS Transition

Congress passed the FY2017 NASA authorization act last year and President Trump signed it into law in March 2017.   It directed NASA to submit an ISS Transition Plan explaining, for example, how long it plans to operate ISS; the costs for operating it through 2024, 2028 and 2030;  what NASA expects to come next for human spaceflight in low Earth orbit (LEO); and how NASA plans to transition to that future architecture.

NASA missed the December 1, 2017 deadline for sending the report to Congress, but its key policy recommendations came to light in February as part of the roll out of NASA’s FY2019 budget request.  Basically, NASA plans to end direct support of the ISS in 2025 with the hope that commercial space stations are available by then and NASA can lease whatever services it requires from those companies.

The complete ISS Transition Plan was submitted to Congress without fanfare on March 30.  The 54-page report has a lot of very interesting information, including NASA’s assessments of the structural integrity of the various components of the ISS and, as required, the estimated annual cost of maintaining the ISS through 2030.

The report states that all the major U.S. structural elements have been “cleared” to operate through December 2028.   Ten elements, including truss segments for the solar arrays and EXPRESS racks, are still undergoing review.  The bottom line is that “analysis to date indicates that there would be sufficient remaining margin to operate even beyond 2028.”

The report cautions, however, that how long ISS operates is not just a technical question, but a financial one as well.  It includes a table showing those costs as exceeding $3 billion per year.

Excerpt from NASA’s International Space Station Transition Report, submitted to Congress March 30, 2018. [https://tinyurl.com/y98fwpll] p. 48
The 2010 NASA authorization bill specified that the ISS be operated at least until 2020 and the 2017 NASA Authorization bill extended that to 2024.

The new draft bill takes a different tack and does not specify a year.  Instead it says ISS shall be operated “for such time as Congress authorizes its operations.”

The bill notes that the plans in the ISS transition report are “conditionally flexible and require feedback to inform next steps” and “the feasibility of ending direct NASA support for ISS operation by the end of fiscal year 2024 is dependent on many factors some of which are indeterminate until the Administration carries out the initial phases of the ISS transition plan.”

With all the uncertainty, for FY2019 the draft bill directs NASA to follow what is laid out in the ISS Transition Plan and authorizes the $150 million for commercial LEO development requested for FY2019.  NASA already is required to submit biennial updates to the Transition Plan and the bill adds further reporting requirements in the form of briefings on how things are going.


President Trump is proposing that WFIRST, designed as the successor to the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), be terminated.  NASA officials insist that it is a budget-related matter, not based on the merit of the program.  WFIRST is still in the design stage with an estimated lifecycle cost of $3.2-3.9 billion according to Acting NASA Administrator Robert Lightfoot.  Some of that money would be redirected to the Trump Administration’s plan to return humans to the Moon and some would remain in astrophysics for other projects.  That has triggered debate over whether a science project is being sacrificed in order to pay for human spaceflight.

However, WFIRST has run into trouble recently.  It had to be downscoped after its cost estimate grew outside its planned envelope.  NASA is anxious to avoid the repeated cost overruns that have plagued JWST.  NASA just announced another schedule delay for JWST, following one last fall. In total, the launch date has slipped from October 2018 to at least May 2020.  A NASA-established Independent Review Board is currently meeting to assess whether May 2020 is achievable.

Congress has enacted a cost cap of $8 billion for development of JWST every year since the program was rebaselined in 2011 after earlier cost overruns.  It does not want a repeat of the JWST woes either.  NASA has informed Congress that it will breach that cap, but will not know until June by how much.  Congress then will have to reauthorize the program in order for it to proceed despite the cap.

Congress is reacting to the proposed WFIRST termination against that backdrop.  The draft bill says there is insufficient information to make a decision on whether WFIRST should proceed, but sets a cost cap of $3.2 billion if it does.  It also prohibits NASA from procuring a launch vehicle for WFIRST until after JWST is operational.

That suggests the bill’s authors are at least as concerned about WFIRST’s potential costs as the science versus human spaceflight issue that originally arose, which was before the latest JWST delay.

One of WFIRST’s purposes is to search for planets around other stars (exoplanets), a strong interest of House SS&T Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX), so the lack of affirmative support for WFIRST is somewhat surprising.

Other Issues and Funding Recommendations

The 53-page bill has many other policy provisions, including encouraging NASA to make use of U.S. commercial space “products”  and “in-space infrastructure” as much as possible.   It requires NASA to submit a report on potential development of space facilities for use beyond LEO including opportunities for commercial operation or public-private partnerships to “protect taxpayer interests and foster cooperation.”  It directs NASA to develop a plan for NASA to share spectrum with nongovernmental entities and to restructure its investments in satellite servicing “to reduce the overall cost to NASA and align with NASA’s needs for exploration.”

It also recommends funding levels for FY2018 and FY2019.  Congress has already appropriated $20.7 billion for NASA in FY2018 and the draft bill endorses those figures.

For 2019, the bill recommends flat funding of $20.7 billion, with no increase for inflation.  Flat budgets that do not include an inflation adjustment eat away at an agency’s buying power, which is a particular problem for NASA, which is trying to execute bold programs like returning humans to the Moon.  That is one of the complaints about President Trump’s FY2019 request for NASA, which similarly projects flat funding for FY2021-2023 after a slight decline in FY2020.

The President’s request for FY2019 is $19.9 billion, so the amount in the draft bill is about $800 million more and is allocated differently than the request.  In particular, earth science would be cut another $334 million from the request ($1.784 billion), already a reduction from current spending ($1.921 billion).  Conversely, planetary science, astrophysics, education, aeronautics, and human spaceflight would each get increases compared to the request.

Authorization bills recommend funding levels, but do not  actually provide any money.  Only appropriations bills provide money.


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