New NASA Authorization Bill Would Extend ISS to 2030, and INKSNA Waiver Too

New NASA Authorization Bill Would Extend ISS to 2030, and INKSNA Waiver Too

A bipartisan NASA authorization bill was introduced today by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and will be marked up by the Senate Commerce Committee next week.  It would extend the authorized lifetime of the International Space Station (ISS) from 2024 to 2030.  Along with that, it would extend a waiver Congress granted NASA from a nonproliferation law to allow it to purchase ISS-related products and services from Russia also to 2030. That waiver, which permits NASA to pay Russia for crew transportation services to and from ISS, currently expires next year.  With all the uncertainty in the commercial crew schedule, NASA is eager to have it extended in case it must buy more seats on Russia’s Soyuz spacecraft.

Cruz chairs the Aviation and Space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee. Joining him as co-sponsors are the Chairman and Ranking Member of the full committee, Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Maria Cantwell (D-WA), and subcommittee Ranking Member Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ).  Wicker announced late this afternoon that the bill, S. 2800, will be marked up by the committee on November 13.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) chairing a hearing on NASA’s STEM engagement activities, November 5, 2019

Authorization bills set policy and recommend funding levels, but do not actually provide any money.  Only appropriations bill provide money. This bill, the 2019 NASA Authorization Act, repeats the funding levels for NASA that were approved by the Senate last week in the FY2020 Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) appropriations bill — a total of $22.75 billion.  In fact many of the bill’s provisions are aligned with the Senate CJS legislation.

The Cruz bill is broadly supportive of all of NASA activities in human spaceflight, science, aeronautics, space technology, and STEM engagement.  In introducing the bill, he said:

Not only will this legislation help ensure Americans safely return to the moon, it will help ensure America’s dreams of taking the first step on the surface of Mars become a reality. Further, by extending the ISS through 2030, this legislation will help grow our already burgeoning space economy, fortifying the United States’ leadership in space, increasing American competitiveness around the world, and creating more jobs and opportunity here at home. — Sen. Ted Cruz

Cruz is a strong proponent of sending humans to Mars and the bill reflects that priority for human spaceflight.  It permits NASA “in sustainable steps” to conduct missions to “intermediate” destinations like the Moon “in order to achieve the objective of human exploration of Mars…if the Administrator determines that each such mission demonstrates or advances a technology or operational concept that will enable human missions to Mars…”

As directed by the Trump Administration, NASA is trying to send the “first woman and the next man” to the Moon by 2024 as a steppingstone to Mars — a program called Artemis (Apollo’s twin sister). The bill, however, does not mention 2024 as a deadline.  Instead, it only contains a non-binding “sense of Congress” statement that NASA developed the Artemis program to “collaborate with commercial and international partners to establish sustainable lunar exploration by 2028.”

That was, in fact, NASA’s plan until March 26, 2019 when Vice President Pence accelerated it to 2024, the last year of a Trump presidency if he wins reelection.

NASA is still trying to convince Congress that moving the deadline up by four years is achievable and worthwhile. Cruz, Wicker and Cantwell all mentioned the Moon program today, but not with the fervor exhibited by Pence. Wicker said the bill provides NASA with the tools needed “to send the first woman to the Moon and plan future missions to Mars.”  Cantwell praised the inclusion of women “at every level of the lunar exploration program — something that is long overdue.”

The bill places a few limitations on Artemis, such as stipulating that “not more than 2” human lunar landing systems will be developed through public-private partnerships.  Proposals for Human Landing Systems (HLS) were due to NASA yesterday.  The agency wants to choose at least three companies initially, with a later downselect to two, which would be in keeping with this language.

Boeing submitted it HLS proposal yesterday and it relies on an upgraded version of the Space Launch System (SLS) that uses an Exploration Upper Stage (EUS).  Boeing is the prime contractor for both. The Trump Administration suspended development of EUS so Boeing could focus on SLS itself, which is years later and over budget.  The Senate CJS appropriations bill nonetheless allocated $300 million for EUS in FY2020, and the Cruz bill follows suit directing NASA to continue its development.  Further, it specifies that EUS must be ready in time for the third SLS launch.  Under current plans, that will be Artemis III, the mission that will send a crew to land on the Moon and thus supports Boeing’s proposal.

The ISS, which just celebrated its 19th anniversary of permanent human occupancy, is a testbed for human exploration missions to the Moon and Mars.  It also is used for scientific experiments and in the 2005 NASA Authorization Act, Congress declared the U.S. segment of ISS as a “national laboratory” to encourage non-NASA users to take advantage of it. The Cruz bill goes on at length about the value of ISS, authorizing its operation through at least 2030, an extension from 2024, and of the need to have a human presence in low Earth orbit (LEO) after it is decommissioned.  It authorizes a LEO commercialization program to that end.

Configuration of the International Space Station as of October 15, 2019. Credit: NASA

NASA has not been able to send astronauts to the ISS since the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011.  It pays Russia for crew transportation services, but needs a waiver from the Iran-North Korea-Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSNA) to do that.  The ISS and Russia’s missile proliferation activities became entwined in 1999 when allegations surfaced that entities of Russia’s space agency were violating the Missile Technology Control Regime.  Congress granted waivers in 2005, 2008, and most recently in January 2013 (the Space Exploration Sustainability Act, P.L. 112-273), but that expires on December 31, 2020.  The waiver is needed to purchase anything from Russia in connection with ISS such as crew transportation.  NASA did not expect to need Russian services after that because the new U.S. commercial crew systems would be operational, but ongoing schedule delays are making the agency nervous. The Cruz bill extends the waiver to 2030, the same duration as the ISS itself.

In terms of science, the bill directs NASA to improve its planetary defense measures in order to protect Earth from asteroids and other Near Earth Objects (NEOs), including launching a space-based infrared survey telescope by 2025. The head of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, Thomas Zurbuchen, just announced in September that he has finally approved such a mission subject to the availability of funding.  He estimated the cost at $500-600 million. The bill also requires NASA to create a Planetary Defense Coordination Office.  Such an office already exists, but this would codify it in law.

It also supports the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) and increases its development cost cap to $9 billion, slightly more than in the Senate CJS appropriations bill ($8.8 billion).  JWST breached its original congressionally-imposed cost cap of $8 billion last year and the launch date slipped from October 2018 to March 2021.  The Cruz bill caps JWST’s successor, the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, (WFIRST) at $3.2 billion.

The bill directs NASA to follow the science priorities set in the Decadal Surveys issued by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine as much as possible; highlights the importance of the search for life, including searching for technosignatures of intelligent life; authorizes a Mars sample return mission; and supports suborbital science missions on commercial platforms and the use of smallsats.

The Trump Administration has been trying to eliminate NASA’s Space Technology Mission Directorate (STMD) as well as its STEM Engagement office and associated programs since it took office.  This bill firmly rejects both proposals, paralleling action in NASA’s appropriations bills.

The bill specifies a number of programs to be conducted in STMD.  Among them is development of nuclear thermal propulsion in preparation for a demonstration mission by the end of 2024, and long-lead technologies for Mars exploration including entry-descent-and-landing (EDL), in-space propulsion (nuclear and electric), and cryogenic fluid management.

NASA’s STEM programs are another committee priority.  Cruz held a hearing specifically on that topic yesterday and Cantwell said today that the legislation “expands NASA’s important role in inspiring and educating the next generation of the nation’s STEM workforce so that America has the people necessary to keep pushing the boundaries of innovation.”

The committee markup is next Wednesday at 10:00 am ET.



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