Senate Committee Working on New, Bold NASA Authorization Bill

Senate Committee Working on New, Bold NASA Authorization Bill

Key members of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee are working on a new NASA authorization bill that will spell out a “bold” vision for the agency’s future.  Aviation and Space Subcommittee chairman Ted Cruz (R-TX) made clear that his goal is for America to continue to lead in exploring space and make sure the “first boot to set foot on the surface of Mars will be that of an American astronaut.”

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas)

Cruz said he is developing the new bill along with subcommittee Ranking Member Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and the Chairman and Ranking Member of the full committee, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) and Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA).  All have space interests in their states. To mention just a few, NASA’s Johnson Space Center and test facilities for Blue Origin and SpaceX are in Texas; Mississippi is home to NASA’s Stennis Space Center; several commercial space companies, from entrepreneurial Blue Origin and SpaceX’s Starlink to established Aerojet Rocketdyne, call Washington home; and, as Sinema pointed out, Arizona has a long history supporting the space program especially with its research universities like the University of Arizona and Arizona State University.

Today’s hearing was a commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 landing on the Moon and a look forward to the next 50 years.  Witnesses included three Apollo-era icons:  Gene Kranz, Apollo flight director; Homer Hickam, former NASA engineer and author of Rocket Boys; and mathematician and aerospace engineer Christine Darden, one of the “Hidden Figures” celebrated in the book and movie by that name.  Joining them were the presidents of two industry associations: Mary Lynne Dittmar of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration and Eric Stallmer of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.

Cruz praised the Artemis program, especially the part about landing a woman on the Moon. “On behalf of my two young daughters, let me say, thank you and it’s about time!”  He sees the return to the Moon as a step to establishing commerce there and as a launching pad to Mars.

Some of the witnesses offered cautionary notes, however.  Kranz worries that the country lacks the national unity that helped propel the Apollo program and without it the space exploration program “will be grounded.” Dittmar emphasized that accelerating plans to return to the Moon must be met with significant national investment above current levels, while Hickam stressed that “what we do on the Moon must make sense to the American people.”

Underscoring that challenge, Sen. Shelley Moore Capito (R-WV) said she had not heard of Artemis until NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine spoke about it at the ceremony to rename NASA’s Independent Validation and Verification (IV&V) facility in Fairmont, WV in honor of Hidden Figures’ Katherine Johnson. That was just last week.  Capito is a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee that funds NASA so it is surprising that she did not know about it earlier and illustrative that word is not getting out.

The hearing was focused on the bigger picture, however, not just 5 years but 50 years.  Cruz’s vision does not stop with human spaceflight.  He also wants to search for life within our solar system, especially on Jupiter’s moon Europa.

“In short, the next 50 years in space have the potential to be even more consequential than the last, but this will require a serious, sober look at the road ahead of us. Our goal for the next 50 years should be to emphatically establish the United States of America as a true, space-faring nation.” — Sen. Ted Cruz

That apparently will be the thrust of the new NASA authorization bill.  NASA’s last authorization bill, the 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act, expired at the end of FY2017 although the policy provisions remain in force until and unless they are changed by a subsequent law.

Much has changed since that act was signed into law by President Trump in March 2017.  Four Space Policy Directives that affect NASA and commercial space activities directly or indirectly have been issued, the commercial space sector continues to make strides, and the White House has directed NASA to put astronauts back on the surface of the Moon in the next 5 years.

A new NASA authorization act is timely although it remains to be seen if the House and Senate will be able to reach agreement and get a bill through both chambers.  They did not achieve that in the last Congress.  The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee marked up a FY2018-2019 NASA authorization bill, but it never reached the House floor.  Cruz and then-Senator Bill Nelson introduced a Senate bill (S. 3799) in the final days of the 115th Congress. There was no action on it.

The witnesses today were all space enthusiasts, most with a focus on NASA although Stallmer provided a more commercial perspective.  He lauded NASA’s use of public-private partnerships.  Commercializing low Earth orbit and returning to and staying on the Moon will be hard, and getting to Mars “harder still, ” but “American industry is ready to help NASA chart an affordable and sustainable path into this challenging future.”

The role of NASA and human spaceflight in inspiring youth to study STEM fields was also a focus, especially for Darden.

“… this lunar destination is promoting sustainability, a proving ground for Mars, a strategic presence for our nation, and a foundation for building international and commercial partnerships while also inspiring the next generation to be prepared for the excitement of new opportunities.” — Christine Darden live tweeted the hearing.   The following tweets provide some of the highlights.  Check our Twitter feed (@SpcPlcyOnline) for more.

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