Senate Floor Action on New NASA Authorization Act Could be Imminent

Senate Floor Action on New NASA Authorization Act Could be Imminent

Senate and House negotiators reportedly are close to agreement on a final version of a FY2017 NASA authorization act.   Senate floor action on a draft compromise bill could come as early as tomorrow.

NASA’s most recent authorization law was enacted in 2010 — the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.  It provided funding recommendations only through FY2013, but the policy provisions remain in force.  NASA’s authorization committees in the House and Senate have been working on a new bill for several years to update policy and provide authorization direction, but without success.  Last year the House passed a FY2015 NASA authorization bill, H.R. 810,(which was very similar to a bill in passed for FY2014), but the Senate did not take it up.  A House bill for FY2016-2017 (H.R. 2039) never reached the floor after clearing the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee on a party line vote.  Significant cuts to NASA’s earth science program were a major partisan sticking point.

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee approved a FY2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act (S. 3346) in September.  It avoided the issue of NASA’s earth science activities by not mentioning them.  It also recommended authorization funding levels only for FY2017, which is already underway, using a combination of figures approved separately by the House and Senate appropriations committees.

A draft of a revised version of the bill reportedly reflecting compromise with the House is now circulating and rumors are that the Senate may take it up as early as tomorrow. obtained a copy of the new draft.  A quick glance suggests that it is similar to what cleared the Senate committee, while incorporating elements of H.R, 810 and H.R. 2039 plus new provisions.  These are a few highlights of the 114-page draft.  

  • Authorizes $19.508 billion for NASA for FY2017, the same total as approved by the House Appropriations Committee, but allocated differently;
  • Requires a study of alternatives to the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM) for
    demonstrating the technologies needed to send humans to Mars, but does not
    terminate the program;
  • Supports the Space Launch System, Orion,
    the International Space Station (ISS), and a stepping-stone approach — including intermediate destinations such as the surface of the Moon, cis-lunar space, near-Earth asteroids, Lagrangian points and Martian moons — to human journeys to Mars, in cooperation with international, commercial and academic partners where practical, including the “peaceful settlement of a location in space or on another celestial body and a thriving space economy in the 21st century”;
  • Prohibits acquisition of non-U.S. (e.g. Russian) crew transportation services to the International Space Station (ISS) unless there are no U.S. alternatives and the non-U.S. provider is a “qualified foreign entity”;
  • Establishes as policy that the United States should maintain an uninterrupted capability for human space flight in and beyond low Earth orbit (LEO) once such a capability is demonstrated;
  • Requires an independent study of a potential 2021 human flyby of Mars, a particular interest of House SS&T chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX);
  • Supports utilization of ISS through at least 2024 (already codified in law in the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act) with an evaluation of continuing it at least through 2028;
  • Requires a plan to transition in a step-wise manner from the current ISS regime that relies on NASA sponsorship to one where NASA is one of many customers;
  • Requires a plan to meet NASA’s projected communications and navigation needs for LEO and deep-space missions for the next 20 years;
  • Allows NASA to provide third-party indemnification for commercial service providers for NASA launches and reentries that are “unusually hazardous or nuclear in nature” under certain conditions;
  • Allows NASA to provide for medical monitoring, diagnosis, and treatment of former U.S. government astronauts or payload specialists for conditions associated with their spaceflights, but none are required to participate;
  • Directs NASA to contract with the National Academies for one study on astrobiology as it relates to the search for life in the solar system and extrasolar planetary systems and another assessing NASA’s robotic Mars exploration program;
  • Directs NASA to report to Congress on how public private partnerships could be used to advance astrobiology as well as efforts to detect, track and catalog Near-Earth Objects (NEOs);
  • Prohibits NASA from terminating science operations of SOFIA;
  • Requires a study from NASA and the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) analyzing the requirements for radioisotope power system material needed for robotic planetary missions; and
  • Requires an assessment from OSTP on how to protect the Apollo landing sites.

The new draft bill does not call for terminating the Asteroid Redirect Mission, but, incidentally, House SS&T Chairman Smith and Rep. Brian Babin (R-TX), who chairs its space subcommittee, sent a letter to NASA today requesting all documents associated with a report and press release the agency issued two weeks ago concluding that the project now has the support of the scientific advisory community.

As in the Senate committee-approved bill, NASA’s earth science activities are not specifically mentioned.

The draft bill contains many “sense of Congress” statements and ‘”findings” that are not legally binding, but express congressional views.  Among them are support for several specific space science missions (James Webb Space Telescope, Wide-field Infrared Space Telescope, a mission to Europa, and Mars 2020), satellite servicing as a “vital capability,” small satellite missions, and a robust aeronautics research program.



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