House Passes NASA Transition Authorization Act

House Passes NASA Transition Authorization Act

The House passed the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 by voice vote this evening, clearing the measure for the President.  The bill sets policy for NASA and recommends funding for FY2017, but does not actually provide any money.

The bill, S. 442, passed the Senate by unanimous consent on February 17.  It passed the House today by voice vote.  House consideration of the bill was delayed a week.  No explanation of the delay was offered today and no changes to the bill were made.  The bill now goes to the President for signature.  The White House has not publicly indicated whether he will sign it or not, but the fact that it passed Congress so easily with bipartisanship support is encouraging.

Human spaceflight is a major focus of the bill, although it also addresses NASA’s space science, space technology and aeronautics programs.  It is silent on earth sciences, a topic of partisan discord.  Many Republicans argue that NASA should focus on space exploration while other agencies conduct earth science research.  Many Democrats insist that only NASA launches earth science research satellites that are essential for understanding the only planet in the solar system that supports human life.  During the debate on the House floor today, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the top Democrat on the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee, rued the fact that the bill did not address earth science, while Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the committee, pressed the argument that NASA should focus on exploration.

The 146-page bill’s overall purpose is to codify congressional intent regarding NASA’s future during a time of transition from one presidential administration to another.  Stability is the watchword.’s fact sheet on NASA’s FY2017 budget request summarizes the bill.  Among its key provisions are the following.

  • offers a Sense of Congress that the International Space Station (ISS) should continue until at least 2024 and perhaps until 2028;
  • indemnifies launch and reentry service providers from third party claims, with conditions, for launches that are unusually hazardous or nuclear in nature;
  • requires NASA to submit to Congress a “human exploration roadmap” to “expand human presence beyond low Earth orbit to the surface of Mars and beyond” in a steppingstone manner, and requires a study on a human mission to Mars to be launched in 2033 (it does not specify if it is to orbit or land);
  • directs the NASA Administrator to submit a report on how the Orion spacecraft can be used to fulfill a provision in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act to serve as a backup to commercial crew to take crews to and from the ISS, including on launch vehicles other than the Space Launch System (SLS);
  • supports the SLS and Orion programs;
  • states that Congress is not convinced that the cost of the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission is worth the benefits and asks for an analysis of alternatives to demonstrate technologies and capabilities needed for human exploration of Mars;
  • allows NASA to provide health care to former astronauts and government payload specialists for conditions resulting from their spaceflights;
  • reaffirms congressional intent that NASA have a balanced and adequately funded science portfolio including small, medium and large space missions, suborbital missions, research and analysis grants, and technology development, with science priorities guided by the Decadal Surveys produced by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine;
  • specifically supports the Mars 2020 rover, a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, the James Webb Space Telescope and the Wide-Field Infrared Space Telescope, and prohibits NASA from cancelling the airborne SOFIA infrared telescope;
  • adds a 10th item to the list of objectives in NASA’s organic act — “the search for life’s origins, evolution, distribution, and future in the universe”;
  • requires reports from the NASA Administrator on public-private partnerships to study astrobiology and Near Earth Objects;
  • allows NASA to conduct Senior Reviews of its science missions on a triennial rather than biennial basis;
  • expresses support for a robust aeronautics programs; and
  • establishes as policy that NASA develop technologies to support NASA’s core missions.

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