A Good Day at House Science: Subcommittee Approves Bipartisan NASA Authorization Bill

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Publication date: 
9 April 2014
Number: 
65

In less than a half-hour this morning the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee approved a bipartisan bill that would establish important policy for NASA.  In contrast to last year’s markup of an authorization bill that stretched over five hours with many party line votes, the action this morning required just two voice votes, setting up this bill for action by the full committee.

The chairs and ranking members of the full committee and the subcommittee credited the success of this bill to many hours of behind-the-scenes negotiations by the majority and minority staffs working together toward a common agreement.  “I know we still have work to do, but this is certainly a positive step” said Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX).  His words were echoed by Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) who said that the committee’s work on the bill “is by no means done.”

Subcommittee Chairman Steven Palazzo (R-MS) and Ranking Member Donna Edwards (D-MD) opening statements highlighted important provisions in the 91-page bill.  “The agreement before us today makes absolutely clear that NASA’s goal for the human space flight program should be to send humans to Mars” said Palazzo.  Edwards agreed: “I know that different Members have their own personal favorite destinations and interim missions, but this Amendment puts the job of deciding the pathway forward where it belongs by requiring NASA to develop an informed and realistic Roadmap to get this nation to Mars.”

That roadmap is clearly defined in five easily understood pages in the bill starting on page 8.  Section 202, “Stepping Stone Approach to Exploration” begins with the following description:

“IN GENERAL. -- In order to maximize the cost effectiveness of the long-term space exploration and utilization activities of the United States, the [NASA] Administrator shall direct the Human Exploration and Operations Mission Directorate, or successor division, to develop a Exploration Roadmap to define the specific capabilities and technologies necessary to extend human presence to the surface of Mars and the sets and sequences of missions required to demonstrate such capabilities and technologies.”

An accompanying provision encourages international participation.  The language is expansive on what NASA may use as test beds to develop capabilities and technologies, and establishes policy regarding phasing.  Language regarding a fully integrated Orion crew capsule and the Space Launch System is included, as is the International Space Station.  This “Human Exploration Roadmap” is to be delivered to Congress within 180 days of the bill’s enactment, and updated at least every two years. 

The bill steers clear of what had divided Members when it considered NASA authorization legislation last July.  It specifies an authorization level for this current fiscal year that is the same amount as that provided in this year’s appropriations bill.  It does not include an authorization level for the upcoming year.  By agreeing to disagree, and delete the controversial FY 2015 authorization level, Palazzo, Edwards, and their colleagues were able to craft a bill that reflects their common areas of policy agreement.  Although statements by the Members indicated that they may try to include an FY 2015 level in a future version of the bill, the rapidly-moving appropriations cycle may outpace a final House/Senate NASA reauthorization bill.

H.R. 4412, the NASA Authorization Act of 2014, contains other important provisions.  After the development of U.S. human space flight capabilities it will limit travel by U.S. astronauts to American systems (page 7 of the bill).  It contains language on the importance of the Space Launch System rocket (page 13), the Orion Crew Capsule (page 18), the International Space Station (page 21), and the Commercial Crew Program (page 30).

Title III of the bill, starting on page 35, establishes policy for NASA’s Science programs.  Of note is a section on Radioisotope Power Systems on page 36.  Starting on page 40 are provisions regarding Astrophysics, including the James Webb Space Telescope and a potential Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope; Planetary Science, including Near-Earth Objects, Astrobiology Strategy, and an Assessment of Mars Architecture; Heliophysics; and Earth Science.  The short section on Earth Science calls for NASA to be reimbursed by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration if instruments now being developed by NOAA are shifted to the space agency.     

The bill also includes a title on Aeronautics starting on page 51 and Space Technology on page 61.  A table of contents for the bill is on page 1 and 2.

Of note is Title VI, entitled Policy Provisions, found on page 65.  The first section calls for a report to be prepared by NASA and provided to House and Senate committees on the proposed Asteroid Retrieval Mission.  This report, to be prepared within six months of the bill’s enactment, is to include a detailed budget profile and technical plan, and an assessment of the project’s merits.  There is a similar provision regarding a Mars Flyby human spaceflight mission that would be launched in 2021.  

In his opening statement, Chairman Palazzo aptly summarized today’s action by the subcommittee:  “This agreement represents this Subcommittee’s commitment to our nation’s leadership in space and a secure future for NASA. Finding bipartisan agreement in an austere budget environment is never an easy task, and our work is not done. I feel this is good first step.”