New NASA Authorization Bill Still in Work, House Committee Questions Orion Plans

New NASA Authorization Bill Still in Work, House Committee Questions Orion Plans

House Science, Space and Technology Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) said in a letter to NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden that his committee continues to work with the Senate “to develop a NASA Authorization bill this year.”   In that regard, he has a number of questions about whether NASA is complying with existing law to ensure Orion will be able to ferry crews to and from the International Space Station (ISS).

The October 7, 2014 letter, also signed by Space Subcommittee Chairman Steve Palazzo (R-MS), focuses on the requirement in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act that Orion be designed to serve as a backup to the commercial crew program for ISS missions in addition to its primary role as a spacecraft to take crews beyond low Earth orbit.  Some of the questions are aimed at whether NASA is, indeed, ensuring that Orion will meet that “minimum capability requirement” as required by law, while others ask why two commercial crew competitors are required when Orion can be the “alternative” spacecraft should a commercial vehicle encounter problems. 

“If Orion could provide a redundant capability as a fallback for the commercial crew program partners, why is it necessary to carry two partners to ensure competition in a constrained budget environment?”, the letter asks.    Some Members of Congress have long questioned why NASA insists on funding more than one commercial crew partner, a disagreement that is at least in part responsible for Congress providing less funding than the President requests for commercial crew year after year. 

Congress has made clear that it considers Orion and the Space Launch System (SLS) to have higher priority than commercial crew.  The House passed the appropriations bill that includes NASA on May 30 and the Senate Appropriations Committee approved its version on June 5.  The House and the Senate committee would both increase funding for Orion and SLS in FY2015 while providing less than requested for commercial crew (though closer to the request than in prior years).  Congress has not yet completed action on FY2015 appropriations, however, and NASA is operating under a Continuing Resolution (CR) roughly at its FY2014 funding level.  The letter asks Bolden which funding level the Orion program is currently using as guidance —  the FY2015 request, the CR, the House-passed bill, or the amount recommended by the Senate committee — and whether that affects the agency’s ability to ensure that Orion can meet the minimum capability requirement.

Smith and Palazzo request that NASA answer those and several related questions by October 21 as they work with their Senate counterparts on a new NASA authorization bill.

The 2010 NASA Authorization Act is the most recent NASA authorization.  Its funding recommendations covered only through FY2013, but the other provisions remain law.  The House passed a 2014 NASA Authorization Act this summer, but the Senate has not acted on its version this year although action had been expected just before Congress recessed in September.

The Smith-Palazzo letter signals that work continues with the hope of the two chambers agreeing on a new bill this year.   That may be a challenge — though not necessarily an insurmountable one — since there will be few legislative days remaining in the 113th Congress when it returns on November 12.  Any bill that does not pass by the end of this Congress will die and new legislation will have to be introduced in the 114th Congress, which begins in January.  



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