NASA authorization bill increases emphasis on commercial partnerships

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WASHINGTON — A NASA authorization bill to be considered by the House next week would direct NASA to work more closely with commercial partners in areas ranging from Earth observation to deep space exploration.

The NASA Authorization Act of 2018, introduced by Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), chairman of the House space subcommittee, was released April 13. The legislation is scheduled to be marked up by the full House Science Committee on April 17.

The bill authorizes $20.7 billion for NASA in fiscal year 2018, matching what was included for NASA in the omnibus appropriations bill enacted in March. It authorizes an identical amount for fiscal year 2019, although apportioned somewhat differently among NASA’s various programs, including more for exploration systems and planetary science and less for Earth science.

Most of the bill is devoted to various policy provisions. One part of the bill, titled “Commercial,” includes a number of sections directing NASA to make use of commercial capabilities in future exploration missions.

“In planning and carrying out space exploration missions, the Administrator shall, to the greatest extent practicable, prioritize the acquisition and use of space products provided by a United States commercial provider or through a public-private partnership with a United States commercial provider,” one section of the bill states. It defines “space products” as a tangible good, such as propellant or water, that is both required for space exploration activities and “originates in outer space.”

Another section of the bill includes similar language calling for the use of “commercial in-space infrastructure” to support exploration missions. Such infrastructure is specifically defined as being located more than 320,000 kilometers from the Earth’s surface, ruling out facilities in Earth orbit but including those at the Earth-Moon L-1 Lagrange point, approximately 325,000 kilometers from the Earth, as well as on or in orbit around the moon.

The bill’s commercial language is not limited to space systems. The U.S., the bill states, “should foster the development of U.S. private sector remote sensing capabilities and analyses that can satisfy the public interest in long-term continuous collection of medium-resolution land remote sensing data.”

To that end, the bill would prevent NASA from spending money on a Landsat 11 or subsequent systems “until the Administrator has completed a study assessing which aspects of Landsat system observations and associated science requirements can be provided by purchasing data from the private sector or through public-private partnerships.” It’s not clear if the “Landsat 11” reference is a typo since Landsat 9 is still under construction for a launch no earlier than late 2020.

The bill, though, does not take a strong position on the administration’s proposal, in its fiscal year 2019 budget request, to end NASA funding of the International Space Station in the mid-2020s and rely on commercial capabilities in low Earth orbit instead. The bill suggests that Congress did receive an ISS transition report, as required by a 2017 NASA authorization bill, but that members need more information before endorsing a particular approach.

“The plans laid out in the ISS transition report are conditionally flexible and require feedback to inform next steps,” the bill states. “In addition, the feasibility of ending direct NASA support for ISS operations by the end of fiscal year 2024 is dependent on many factors, some of which are indeterminate until the Administration carries out the initial phases of the ISS transition plan.”

The bill, rather than backing a particular ISS transition approach, instead instructs NASA to provide Congress with quarterly briefings “on the status of, and all progress, changes, and other developments related to carrying out the plans in the ISS transition report.”

The bill also casts a skeptical eye on NASA’s Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), which the administration sought to cancel in the 2019 budget request. The bill does not formally endorse that plan, but notes that, without a lifecycle cost estimate, “Congress has insufficient information to judge whether or not WFIRST should be authorized to proceed in fiscal year 2019.”

Rather than make a decision on WFIRST, it instead sets a $3.2 billion cost cap on the mission, the same cost that NASA recently revised the mission to fit within. It also directs NASA not to procure a launch vehicle for WFIRST until after the launch of the James Webb Space Telescope.

Other sections of the bill deal with topics ranging from spacesuit development to space nuclear power to endorsing a space telescope like the proposed Near-Earth Object Camera (NEOCam) mission to meet requirements established in previous bills to detect smaller near Earth asteroids.

Another provision of the bill backs the search for “technosignatures” as part of the agency’s broader efforts to look for life in the universe, authorizing $10 million in 2018 and 2019 for that work. Such signatures would include radio transmissions, and those searches could be done in partnership with the private sector and philanthropic organizations. Such groups are the only ones that have done those searches after Congress cancelled a search for extraterrestrial intelligence effort run by NASA a quarter-century ago.