Congress may soon pass NASA authorization bill
WASHINGTON — The chairman of the House Science Committee is optimistic that Congress will soon pass the first NASA authorization bill in more than six years.
In a Jan. 30 interview, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said he expected both the House and Senate to soon pass an authorization bill similar to one that nearly made it through Congress at the end of last year.
“I think it will pass in February,” he said. “I don’t foresee any problems at this point. We’ve ironed out the differences and made some tweaks that were responsive to various stakeholders’ requests.”
Smith said he’s met with Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), chairman of the space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, to discuss the bill and “pre-conference” its contents to streamline its passage. Current plans call for the bill to be introduced in the Senate and passed there through unanimous consent, a mechanism for speedy passage of non-controversial legislation. The bill would then go to the House, where Smith said he expected to make no changes to it prior to passage.
Congress last passed a NASA authorization bill in October 2010, cementing the compromise with the Obama administration on cancelling the Constellation program but developing the Space Launch System heavy-lift launch vehicle and continuing work on the Orion spacecraft. Since then, the House has passed several authorization bills, but none made it through the Senate.
In September, the Senate Commerce Committee approved its own version of an authorization bill, the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2016. The full Senate passed the bill by unanimous consent Dec. 9, a day after the House adjourned for the year.
The new bill will be modeled on that Senate bill and include many of the same provisions. They include extended monitoring of astronaut health, development of transition plans for the International Space Station and indemnification for NASA launch services. The bill will also call for a roadmap for NASA’s human exploration plans, similar to provisions in separate legislation introduced last week in the House and Senate.
Another key House member said that passage of a NASA authorization bill would help provide continuity for key NASA programs in the new administration.
“The most certain way to ensure continuity of purpose is for Congress to pass, and for the president to sign, the NASA authorization that directs the new administration to maintain the course,” said Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), chairman of the space subcommittee of the House Science Committee, at a Jan. 30 Space Transportation Association reception.
Smith, in the interview, said he expected the science committee to focus on ensuring continued progress on SLS and Orion, as well as NASA’s commercial crew program. “We want to give some stability and continuity to our space program. That’s what oftentimes has been missing,” he said. “We want to make sure that our major programs continue from one administration to another.”
He added, though, that he expected the Trump administration to “want to put their imprint” on NASA’s programs, although he said it wasn’t clear yet what those changes might be. He added that he supported reorienting NASA’s human spaceflight program to include human missions to the moon, but would leave that decision up to the administration.
However, Smith believes that NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), which he has long been critical of, will not survive in the new administration. “I don’t think ARM can be justified,” he said. “I’m hoping that it fades from the agenda.”
Smith said he expected the administration to nominate a NASA administrator in the “coming weeks.” He declined to say if he supported a particular individual for the position, saying he’s been asked for endorsements by three different people. “Whoever’s chosen will have a wonderful opportunity to oversee a lot of new initiatives in space,” he said.