Pressure Builds for House Committee To Change NASA Authorization Bill

Pressure Builds for House Committee To Change NASA Authorization Bill

Fourteen Nobel Prize winners plus former NASA officials, former astronauts and others sent a letter to House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) urging him to reconsider the provisions of the NASA authorization bill (H.R. 5781) reported by his committee. The bill has not yet been voted upon by the House.

The letter supports President Obama’s plan to rely exclusively on commercial companies to launch astronauts to low Earth orbit (LEO) instead of NASA: “first, allow commercial providers to handle operations in low Earth orbit so that NASA’s human spaceflight program can focus on exploration beyond Earth orbit instead of trying to ‘do it all,’ which is unaffordable.” The House committee’s version of the bill supports “commercial crew” conceptually, but would not provide the level of financial support requested by the President for FY2011 and projected through FY2015, a total of almost $6 billion. Instead, the House committee recommends loans and loan guarantees to assist the commercial companies.

Both the House committee’s bill and the bill that passed the Senate last month (S. 3729) require NASA to develop its own crew transportation system for LEO and beyond, promising that the government system will not compete with any commercial systems that emerge. The Senate bill is much more supportive of commercial efforts, though not as strongly as the President.

Funding for the new NASA crew transportation system and for a possible additional space shuttle flight would come primarily from technology development funds requested for NASA’s Exploration Systems Mission Directorate in both bills. A separate pot of technology development money allocated to NASA’s Chief Technologist, Bobby Braun, would be fully funded in the House committee’s bill, but cut significantly by the Senate.

Though the letter is only to the House, not the Senate, it calls for restoration of the technology development funding. It also supports robotic precursor missions. The House committee says in its report (H. Rept. 111-576) that it considers robotic precursons only as “‘nice-to-have’ until the mission objectives to justify a robotic reconnaissance mission in advance of planned human exploration are established.” Lastly, the letter urges more investment in university and student research.

Among the signers of the letter are Nobelist David Baltimore and University of Michigan Professor Lennard Fisk, both of whom were members of the National Academies’ committee that wrote the 2009 “America’s Future in Space” report. Dr. Fisk and another letter signer, Nobelist Charles Townes, are former chairmen of the National Research Council’s Space Studies Board. Bill Nye, who will soon become executive director of the Planetary Society, is another signatory; the Planetary Society sent a separate letter with similar views to the bipartisan leadership of the House and Senate authorization and appropriations subcommittees that oversee NASA earlier in August.

Three other signatories — Nobelist Douglas Osheroff, former NASA Ames Research Center Director Scott Hubbard, and George Washington University Professor Emeritus John Logsdon — were members of the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) that determined the cause of the 2003 space shuttle Columbia tragedy. The CAIB report also drew attention to the lack of, and need for, a national mandate for the human spaceflight program to justify the risks involved. Hubbard and Logsdon reportedly led this letter-writing effort.

Informed sources say that the letter was addressed only to the House because that bill has yet to be voted upon and the hope is to change it prior to passage to facilitate negotiations with the Senate.

User Comments has the right (but not the obligation) to monitor the comments and to remove any materials it deems inappropriate.  We do not post comments that include links to other websites since we have no control over that content nor can we verify the security of such links.