House Passes 7-Week CR and Bills Honoring Hidden Figures and Christa McAuliffe

House Passes 7-Week CR and Bills Honoring Hidden Figures and Christa McAuliffe

The House was busy passing legislation today.  Among the bills is a Continuing Resolution (CR) to keep the government open through November 21 since the regular appropriations bills will not be completed before FY2020 begins on October 1.  Two others honor women in mathematics and engineering who worked at NASA and its predecessor from the 1930s to the 1970s, and Teacher in Space Christa McAuliffe who perished in the 1986 Challenger tragedy.

Unless otherwise provided, CRs keep agencies at their current funding levels and they can neither begin new programs nor cancel existing ones.  They basically maintain the status quo while debate continues on the next year’s appropriations bills.

NASA and supporters of its Moon-by-2024 Artemis program are hoping that Congress will include an exception (“anomaly”) to allow NASA to spend more money on Artemis and sign contracts for associated Human Landing Systems (HLS) before the end of this year.

The CR that passed the House today does not, however.  H.R. 4378 will keep NASA at its FY2019 funding level until November 21 or whenever another appropriations bill is passed.  NASA already has money in FY2019 for many elements of Artemis like the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion, and the Gateway. Those will continue at their current levels. But in May, after its March 26 decision to accelerate the return of astronauts to the Moon to 2024 instead of 2028, the White House requested an additional $1.6 billion above its original request for FY2020. Most of that is for HLS.  The House passed its FY2020 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill, which includes NASA, in June. That also does not include any of the $1.6 billion.  The acting head of NASA’s human exploration program, Ken Bowersox, told a congressional committee yesterday that it will be extremely difficult to make the 2024 deadline if the agency does not get that money expeditiously.

The Senate Appropriations Committee has not acted on the CJS bill yet.  It only began marking up its bills last week.  So far the committee has approved six of the 12, but CJS is not among them.  None has reached the Senate floor for debate and that step is already proving contentious.  Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell tried to bring up a package of four of the bills yesterday, but he could not get enough votes to proceed largely due to arguments over shifting money from DOD’s military priorities to pay for President Trump’s border wall.

The question now is whether the Senate will pass the CR and whether it will make changes, like including the exception NASA wants. That would mean negotiations back and forth until a final agreement is reached that satisfies everyone, including Trump since he must sign the legislation.  All in the next week and a half.

Congress does not want another shutdown, but it did not want the last one either.  For 35 days, from December 22, 2018-January 25, 2019, NASA and many other agencies were shut down because Trump decided at the last minute not to sign a CR, even though he had signaled that he would, because he was criticized by some conservative media personalities for giving in on the border wall issue.

In that light, it must be remembered that the House action today is just one step towards avoiding a shutdown on October 1.  How many more steps remain depends on whether the Senate passes the identical bill, amends it, or does not pass anything.

The House also passed the Hidden Figures Congressional Gold Medal Act (H.R. 1396) and the Christa McAuliffe Commemorative Coin Act (S. 239).

The Hidden Figures bill, sponsored by House SS&T Chairwoman Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) and with 314 co-sponsors, will award individual gold medals to four women whose work for NASA was highlighted in the book and movie Hidden Figures: Katherine Johnson, Christine Darden, and, posthumously, Dorothy Vaughn and Mary Jackson.  A group medal will also be awarded to recognize all women who, like those four, served as human computers, mathematicians and engineers at NASA and its predecessor, the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA), from the 1930s to the 1970s.  The Senate passed a companion bill, S. 590, on March 27.

Christa McAuliffe. Credit: NASA

The Christa McAuliffe Commemorative Coin Act directs the Secretary of the Treasury to mint and issue not more than 350,000 $1 coins to honor McAuliffe, the first Teacher in Space.  The bill notes that 2019 is the 30th anniversary of the international non-profit FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) robotics program, whose mission is inspiring children to study STEM fields, and requires that the sale of each coin include a $10 surcharge that will be paid to FIRST.  Sen. Jeanne Shaheen (D-NH) sponsored the bill, which passed the Senate on July 10.  FIRST is based in Manchester, NH.  McAuliffe was a teacher in nearby Concord, NH when she was selected for the Teacher in Space program.

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