House SS&T Committee Announces Bipartisan 2015 NASA Authorization Act

House SS&T Committee Announces Bipartisan 2015 NASA Authorization Act

Top Republicans and Democrats on the House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) committee today announced details of a new bipartisan NASA Authorization Act that will be introduced next week.  The bill avoids budget issues by authorizing funds only for FY2015, for which funding already has been appropriated.

House SS&T Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX), Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Space Subcommittee Chairman Steve Palazzo (R-MS) and Ranking Member Donna Edwards (D-MD), and Space Subcommittee Vice-Chairman Mo Brooks (R-AL) issued a joint press release laying out the major provisions of the legislation, which seem to parallel the bill passed the House (but not considered by the Senate) last year.   Whether the text is identical to last year’s other than updating the budget figures is not clear, but Smith said “this bill was approved unanimously” by the committee and “passed in the House” in the last Congress, suggesting that it must be very close.  Last year’s bill included budget figures only for FY2014, which was already in progress at the time the bill was under consideration.  They have taken the same tack for this bill.

The main theme is that NASA is a multi-mission agency involved in range of aeronautics and space research and development activities.  Key elements include the following:

  • Human Spaceflight
    • states that a human mission to Mars is the goal for NASA’s human spaceflight program and calls on NASA to develop a roadmap to achieve that goal
    • continues the commitment to the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion, and reiterates the directive in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act that Orion serve as a backup to commercial crew if necessary
    • supports building “at least one” commercial crew system
  • Science
    • relies on guidance from the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) regarding NASA’s earth and space science programs and asks for additional NAS studies on long-term goals of the Mars robotic program and an exoplanets strategy
    • emphasizes the need for a “steady cadence” of science missions, including a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa for launch by 2021
    • stresses the importance of fulfilling previous congressional direction regarding detecting, tracking, cataloging and characterizing Near Earth Objects 140 meters in diameter or more
    • asserts that if earth science responsibilities are transferred to NASA from other agencies that NASA be reimbursed for that cost
    • maintains funding to support launch of the James Webb Space Telescope by 2018
  • Aeronautics
    • authorizes a robust program including efforts to integrate unmanned aerial systems into the national airspace, development of NextGen technology for air traffic management and research on aviation safety
  • Infrastructure
    • directs NASA to develop a plan to better position the agency to have facilities and infrastructure necessary to meet future requirements
    • provides transparency provisions to ensure NASA’s property and facilities are managed appropriately
  • Education
    • requires that NASA’s educational and outreach activities continue to support STEM curriculum and inspire the next generation of explorers

The bill also provides greater public accountability and transparency, requires enforcement of cost estimating discipline, strengthens the NASA Advisory Council (NAC), and provides for additional tools to protect against waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement.

The phrasing that NASA is a multi-mission agency is important because some argue that NASA only should be involved in human spaceflight.   Science should be done by the National Science Foundation and other government agencies, and aeronautics research should be under the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), they argue.  This bill makes clear that NASA should continue to have a range of missions as described in the 1958 National Aeronautics and Space Act that created the agency.

The language about support for “at least one” commercial crew system and that Orion continue to be able to serve as a backup to commercial crew also is important.   Committee Republicans do not necessarily agree that NASA should support two commercial crew companies.  SpaceX and Boeing were selected by NASA last year, which believes that it needs two competitors to keep prices down and provide redundancy in case one of the systems has a failure.  Some in Congress think there should be only one commercial crew company and the redundant capability could be filled by Orion.

Launching a mission to Europa by 2021 is quite different from NASA’s FY2016 budget plan, which foresees such a launch in the mid-2020s.

The bipartisan announcement is in contrast to the partisan wrangling at the committee’s organizational meeting last month,


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