House SS&T Committee Outlines Oversight Plans for NASA, NOAA, FAA

House SS&T Committee Outlines Oversight Plans for NASA, NOAA, FAA

The House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee has a robust oversight agenda for the 113th Congress, including NASA’s aeronautics and space activities, NOAA’s satellite programs, and FAA’s aeronautics R&D program and its Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

The committee’s 113th Congress Oversight Plan lays out the key issues it will monitor over the next two years.  Of its six subcommittees, three plan to keep an eye on NASA, NOAA and FAA.

The Space subcommittee will monitor the broadest range of these issues.  Human spaceflight program is at the top of the list.  The committee asserts that “NASA has not clearly articulated what types of future human space flight missions it wishes to pursue, or their rationale.”  It plans to “further review … costs associated with cancellation of the Constellation program, NASA’s approach to develop and fund a successor to the Space Shuttle, and investment in NASA launch infrastructure.”  It also plans to examine the “feasibility of NASA’s plans and priorities relative to their resources and requirements.”   A recent National Research Council report concluded that the current plan to send humans to an asteroid by 2025 is not “widely accepted as a compelling destination by NASA’s own workforce, by the nation as a whole or by the international community.”

Other topics on the Space subcommittee’s list include oversight of:

  • FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation and “the progress of the emerging personal space flight industry, as well as the challenges it faces”;
  • NASA’s space science programs, particularly executing them within cost and schedule;
  • NASA’s COTS program and the ability of those commercial providers to meet NASA’s requirements to deliver cargo and crew to the International Space Station (ISS);
  • NASA’s plans for operating and utilizing ISS;
  • NASA’s aeronautics program and its ability to support the interagency effort to modernize the air traffic management system as well as conduct long-term R&D;
  • NASA’s contract and financial management efforts; and
  • NASA’s compliance with congressional direction relating to Near Earth Objects.

The Environment subcommittee will monitor “NASA’s efforts to prioritize, plan and implement Earth science missions within cost and schedule.”  It will also “examine the impact of large increases in funding for the Earth Science Division relative to funding requested for other science disciplines.”   Earth science was a top priority of NASA’s science programs in the early years of the Obama Administration, although budget realities dashed some of those hopes beginning with the FY2012 budget.   That budget — which is the basis for NASA’s spending right now under the Continuing Resolution — funds Earth Science at $1.76 billion.  By comparison, planetary science is $1.50 billion, astrophysics (combining the James Webb Space Telescope with the rest of NASA’s astrophysics activities) is $1.19 billion, and heliophysics is $620.50 million.

The Oversight subcommittee includes monitoring NOAA’s satellite modernization effort on its list.  “The restructured Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS) will continue to draw the Committee’s attention, as will the Geostationary Operational Environmental Satellites and the broader issues of research-to-operations planning and data continuity.”   It also plans oversight of “critical minerals, materials, and isotopes” including plutonium-238 (Pu-238).   NASA is working with the Department of Energy (DOE) to restart production of Pu-238, which is needed for radioisotope power sources used to provide electrical power and heat for spacecraft that cannot rely on solar panels because they are traveling too far from the Sun or will be on lunar/planetary surfaces where sunlight is not always available.

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