Garver Praises Bipartisanship of Congress on NASA Bill

Garver Praises Bipartisanship of Congress on NASA Bill

During a media teleconference this afternoon, NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver gushed with gratitude to Congress for setting aside politics and passing the NASA authorization bill (S. 3729) with a bipartisan vote of 304-118 last night.

Asserting that the bill draws on the plans laid out by President Obama in February, she listed key elements of the bill such as extending the International Space Station (ISS) to at least 2020, accelerating development of a heavy lift launch vehicle (HLLV), increasing earth sciences and green aviation, launching a commercial space transportation industry for crew and cargo, and “at least gets us started” on development of “path-breaking” technology that is “critical to the long term economic growth of the nation.”

There are, of course, significant differences between the bill and what the Obama Administration wanted. The Administration did not want NASA to develop a space transportation system to take crews to low Earth orbit (LEO), for example, and the bill requires that a government system be developed. The Administration wanted to turn that task over to the private sector with substantial up-front government funding to facilitate their efforts. The bill supports the development of a “commercial crew” capability, but with substantially reduced government funding compared to the request, and a host of requirements.

The Administration did envision NASA developing a new human space transportaiton system to take people beyond LEO, but did not want to commit to a design of a new HLLV until 2015. The bill directs that the agency move out on a new HLLV immediately. Funding for it would come largely from funds NASA wanted to invest in new technologies. A reporter asked if the funding and timeline provided in the bill yielded an executable program, and she hedged by saying there had been many studies and some would conclude yes and others no.

The bill does recommend the total funding level for NASA proposed by the President for FY2011, $19.00 billion. It also recommends the same level of funding for FY2012 and FY2013 projected in the President’s FY2011 budget request: $19.45 billion and $19.96 billion respectively. In total, the bill recommends $58 billion for NASA over those three years, which Ms. Garver called “a real show of support for the agency” given today’s deficit situation.

She stressed again and again that the appropriations process is not complete so the funds are not yet in hand. Only appropriations bills provide money to agencies; authorization bills set policy, permit new programs to start, and recommend funding levels. For example, while the bill calls for the launch of an additional shuttle mission, STS-135, the funding still needs to be provided by appropriators. She lauded Congress for how closely the authorizers and appropriators, especially in the Senate, were working together this year and predicted that the appropriations bill will not be too different from the authorization, however.

The language in the FY2010 appropriations bill that prohibits NASA from terminating the Constellation program or initiating a new program is still in effect, she said, insisting that the tests and other work that continues to be performed on Constellation elements undoubtedly will be valuable for whatever system the agency now pursues. She said that the trade space is wide open for a new HLLV and includes the potential of using the existing Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicles (EELVs). Whether or not to use the EELVs, Delta IV and Atlas V, as part of a new human space flight exploration architecture has been contentious for many years. “The trade space continues to be open,” she said.

In response to a question, she defended NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden who is out of the country on travel, assuring the reporter that he spent yesterday making many phone calls to Congress about the bill and is very much engaged in leading the agency. (He was attending the International Astronautical Federation conference in Prague and meeting with the heads of other space agencies yesterday.)

She disputed another reporter’s contention the bill means that the Moon no longer is a destination for U.S. human spaceflight. Noting that her first son’s first word was “Moon,” she emphatically said that “lunar science, lunar exploration is alive and well at NASA.” “The fact that the next destination is an asteroid is nothing against the Moon,” she said, while pointing to commercial companies that plan robotic or human flights to the Moon.

The bill will be sent to the President in the next 10 days, she said, and he is expected to sign it.

The teleconference was recorded and playback is available for the next two weeks by calling 1-866-363-1835.

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