Bolden Bashes Authorization Bill Again, Marks Earth as NASA Territory

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WASHINGTON — NASA Administrator Charles Bolden doubled down May 5 on his critique of a just-passed NASA authorization bill that seeks to shift hundreds of millions of dollars out of the agency’s Earth Science program.

“It’s abysmal,” Bolden said of the Republican-authored bill during a panel discussion here at the annual Women in Aerospace (WIA) conference.

The NASA Authorization Act for 2016 and 2017 (HR 2039) passed the House Science Committee on a straignt party-line vote April 30. The measure would cut NASA’s roughly $1.8 billion Earth Science account by 18-32 percent in 2016 and redistribute the funding to planetary science and human spaceflight programs, including the Orion deep space capsule and Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket.

“Very shortsighted, very wrong-headed and everything,” Bolden said.

Industry insiders handicapping the bill gave it almost no prospects of passing the Senate. A Senate aide speaking at the Humans 2 Mars Summit here May 5 said the upper chamber will soon start work on its own NASA policy bill, further dimming prospects that the House’s bill — which hasn’t been scheduled for a floor vote — will be signed into law.

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“When people talk about wanting to get NASA back to its core mission, you know, we have a mission to make sure we take care of the planet,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden told SpaceNews May 5, less than a week after the House Science Committee passed an authorization bill that would sharply cut NASA’s Earth Science account. Credit: NASA

But even if the bill, H.R. 2039, stalls, it appears the Obama administration, which supports NASA’s environmental monitoring programs, might have to contend with other attempts to curtail the activity.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), a firebrand budget hawk who has proven as likely to rail against the Space Launch System, which has bipartisan support, as Earth Science, has kept some powder dry in the form of legislative language that would strike Earth observations from NASA’s core mission as spelled out in the agency’s legislative charter.

On April 30, as the House Science Committee proceeded with its bill markup, Rohrabacher appeared set to offer the language, plus his Space Exploration, Development, and Settlement Act of 2015, as amendments to the legislation.

But when recognized by committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), Rohrabacher withdrew his amendments from consideration, keeping the language in play for the rest of the legislative season.

Bolden, who is well aware of Rohrabacher’s proposed amendments, told SpaceNews he opposes any attempt to end NASA’s environmental observation activities.

“Anything that strikes responsibility for Earth Science and responsibility for providing necessary data to decision-makers about protecting this planet, about Earth, I think would be irresponsible, to be quite honest,” Bolden said in a brief interview after his panel discussion at the WIA conference.

In Congress, the Republican majority often questions why NASA has to be in the Earth Science business at all when other U.S. agencies, such as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the U.S. Geological Survey, also have long-running Earth observation programs.

As Steve Volz, NOAA’s assistant administrator for satellite and information services and moderator for the panel on which Bolden spoke, observed, “There’s a general push that we see in our conversations … with our stakeholders in Congress to eliminate redundancy.”

Bolden acknowledged “there is some redundancy,” but said it is “not excessive.”