House Committee Clears Bipartisan NASA Authorization Bill

House Committee Clears Bipartisan NASA Authorization Bill

The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee approved a new NASA authorization bill today on a unanimous bipartisan vote. The bill essentially reaffirms existing policy in support of human exploration, especially the International Space Station and the Artemis program, and NASA’s science, technology and aeronautics activities. Ensuring U.S. leadership and facilitating the growth of the U.S. commercial space sector are consistent themes.

The Chair and Ranking Member, Rep. Frank Lucas (R-OK) and Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), often note the history of bipartisanship on the committee. While the two parties don’t always agree on the breadth of topics under the committee’s jurisdiction, NASA is one agency that enjoys broad support and the NASA Reauthorization Act of 2024, H.R. 8958, continues that tradition. The vote was 37-0.

House Science, Space, and Technology Committee vote on the NASA Reauthorization Act of 2024, H.R. 8958, July 10, 2024. Screengrab.

As is true across Capitol Hill, both parties are intent on keeping the United States ahead of China and space activities are no exception. Lucas said today that “we’re at pivotal moment in space exploration” with NASA getting ready to send astronauts back to the Moon and making groundbreaking science discoveries, “but we’re not the only ones expanding our presence in space” with China having just returned lunar samples from the far side of the Moon and “pursuing a lunar base at the Moon’s South Pole.”

Authorization bills set policy and may recommend funding levels, but do not actually provide any money. Only appropriators have money to spend. In this case, the bill recommends funding levels only for FY2025 and with one exception match what the House Appropriations Committee approved for NASA yesterday when it marked up the Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) bill. The exception is STEM education, with the authorization bill recommending $135 million instead of the $85 million approved by appropriators. Both figures are less than the $143.5 million appropriated for FY2024.

Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL). Screengrab. July 10, 2024.

During markup today, the committee adopted an amendment offered by Rep. Bill Posey (R-FL) that essentially adds the text of the Wolf Amendment to the authorization bill. Named after former Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA) who included it in NASA appropriations bills when he chaired the CJS subcommittee more than a decade ago, the provision sharply limits bilateral space cooperation with China unless NASA gets advance congressional approval after certifying to the House and Senate Appropriations Committees and the FBI that the cooperation doesn’t violate restrictions it establishes with regard to technology transfer and human rights.

The language has been in every NASA appropriations bill since 2011, including the bill approved by the House Appropriations Committee yesterday.

By adding it to the authorization bill, the House SS&T Committee and the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee also would be able to weigh in on whether the cooperation is permissable. However, it will only be for FY2025. The amendment begins “No federal funds may be obligated or expended” for those purposes and since the bill only authorizes funding for FY2025, that’s how long it applies.

Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA). Screengrab. July 10, 2024.

Lofgren endorsed the amendment and thanked Posey for limiting its duration. “I support the Wolf amendment. China is a geopolitical adversary and we need to exercise care in our interactions with them … but at the same time we can’t predict where China will be in 10 years and I sincerely hope that country will be profoundly different than it is today. I want to thank Mr. Posey for working with us to ensure that should that possibility occur there will be flexibility.”

Posey’s amendment was one of 19 that were adopted today. Four others were withdrawn.

Overall, the bill largely reaffirms existing policy about NASA’s space and aeronautics activities. That includes support for the Artemis program as part of a Moon to Mars strategy, for the International Space Station and commercial space stations to replace it, for a strong aeronautics program with a special focus on hypersonics research, for space technology programs related to lunar exploration, and for a balanced science program that includes different types and classes of missions as well as research and analysis grants and technology development. The science section has extensive language about a number of science programs including Mars Sample Return, directing NASA to pursue it “subject to availability of appropriations” on a timeline to sustain U.S. leadership.

A committee summary of the bill highlights these provisions:

  • Continues to provide overarching support and direction for human space exploration, including both the Artemis and Moon to Mars Programs.
  • Directs the maximum possible utilization and productivity of the International Space Station while transitioning to a future supported by commercial services.
  • Promotes space technology development, ensuring we are equipped with the appropriate tools and infrastructure as our lunar presence grows.
  • Supports transformative aeronautics research and development by advancing the next generation of aviation technology.
  • Fosters scientific discovery and expands our collective knowledge, encouraging NASA to maintain a balanced scientific portfolio with a steady cadence of missions.

A discussion draft of the bill circulated earlier contained two provisions that were omitted from the final bill. One would have limited NASA’s ability to enter into international partnerships for human exploration of Mars. The other supported advancement of private sector human space activities.

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