Proposed NASA Authorization Bill Draws Mixed Reviews From Stakeholders-UPDATE

Proposed NASA Authorization Bill Draws Mixed Reviews From Stakeholders-UPDATE

Updated April 30, 2015 with a clarification regarding the letter from Citizens for Spaceflight Exploration-Texas.

Letters from three stakeholder groups to the House Science, Space, and Technology (SS&T) Committee offer mixed reviews of the 2016-2017 NASA Authorization Act that will be marked up by the committee tomorrow.  The Planetary Society, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, and the Coalition for Space Exploration support certain aspects of the legislation, but not the bill in its entirety.  A fourth letter, from Citizens for Spaceflight Exploration-Texas, endorses the human exploration aspects of the bill.

The Republican-sponsored bill was announced last Friday and formally introduced on April 28 as H.R. 2039.  The policy provisions of the bill are virtually identical to language that passed the House on a bipartisan basis in February as part of the 2015 NASA Authorization Act.  The big difference is the budget section. The 2015 act, which has not passed the Senate yet, included funding figures only for FY2015.  That is the fiscal year currently underway so that bill did not require debates about funding.  

H.R. 2039, however, includes funding recommendations for future years, FY2016 and FY2017.  This bill is the first salvo in what could turn out to be a highly partisan debate over NASA’s priorities.  The bill makes funding recommendations based on two different budget scenarios  — an “aspirational” level where the caps set by the 2011 Budget Control Act (BCA) are removed and a “constrained” level where the caps remain in force.  NASA’s earth science program would suffer significant cuts under either of those scenarios.   Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), the top Democrat on the Space Subcommittee, said on Tuesday that she “will not stand by quietly” and enable those cuts to go into effect.

A summary of the bill and a fact sheet with a table comparing its proposed funding levels with current funding and the President’s FY2016 budget request is available on

The committee posted three letters (from The Planetary Society, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, and Citizens for Spaceflight Exploration-Texas) on its website on Tuesday that it characterized in a press release as supportive of the bill.  The Coalition for Space Exploration issued its letter on Wednesday.

The letter from The Planetary Society (TPS) strongly endorses the funding levels for planetary exploration, which receive a boost, but is silent on other provisions.  On Wednesday, Casey Dreier, TPS Director of Advocacy, who signed the letter, clarified on the Society’s website that TPS does not support other aspects of the legislation.  “Obviously, the cuts to Earth Science make this a hard bill to support, therefore the Planetary Society does not as written.  We’re hoping that the committee markup will find ways to preserve and grow all science as this moves forward.”

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation praised the bill’s recommended FY2016 funding level for commercial crew (which is the same as the President’s request under the aspirational scenario; less than the request, but more than current funding in the constrained scenario) and for Advanced Exploration Systems (AES).  AES is a sub-account under Exploration R&D and the bill’s proposed level for Exploration R&D is the same as the President’s request in FY2016 under either budget scenario.   The Federation letter adds, however, that “While this bill represents progress in key areas, we remain concerned about some provisions … that include, among other things, limitations on NASA’s use of Space Act Agreements….”

The letter from the Coalition for Space Exploration thanks the committee for its support of human and robotic exploration programs (specifically mentioning the James Webb Space Telescope as an “exploration science mission”), but “we remain concerned that by flat funding SLS, Orion and other Exploration program levels … the bill would unintentionally constrain progress toward accelerating program content from Exploration Mission-2 [EM-2] to be included in Exploration Mission-1 [EM-1] in 2018.  We urge the committee to consider the demands of these programs during this critical moment in the development cycle and hope that targeted adjustments will be made….”  The bill would provide level funding for SLS and Orion compared to FY2015 appropriations.  President Obama requested reduced funding for FY2016.  EM-1 is the first SLS launch, scheduled for 2018, which will carry an uncrewed version of the Orion spacecraft.  EM-2 is the second SLS launch, with a crewed Orion, anticipated in 2021.

The letter from Citizens for Spaceflight Exploration-Texas, which is associated with the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership, said it “welcomes the strong endorsement of America’s space exploration program” exemplified in the bill.   The letter appears to address the broad scope of NASA’s space programs by referencing technological innovation and competitiveness, STEM education, and high-tech jobs and future workforce opportunities, for example, but a representative of the group contacted on April 30 to clarify that the letter was designed to endorse only those aspects of the bill related to SLS, Orion, the International Space Station, and commercial cargo and crew.  Those are the topics, which also are specifically mentioned in the letter, within the group’s purview.  It has no position on the other parts of the bill.

The markup begins at 11:00 am ET on April 30.  Edwards said on Tuesday that she was trying to talk to subcommittee chairman Steve Palazzo (R-MS), the lead sponsor of the bill, and full committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) to see if they can reach common ground on the cuts to earth science prior to markup.  Otherwise she said she fears they are on a path to the same type of partisan discord that characterized a 2013 markup of a NASA authorization bill.  Approved by committee on party lines, it never reached the floor for a vote.


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