Lawmakers on Both Sides, Experts Pick Apart Draft NASA Authorization Bill

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WASHINGTON  — U.S. House lawmakers on both sides of the aisle criticized a draft NASA authorization bill for underfunding an already overburdened agency, while expert witnesses warned that the proposed legislation would ultimately undermine the expanded human spaceflight enterprise its authors sought to create.

The latter point was driven home when Rep. Bill Posey (R-Fla.) asked during a June 19 congressional hearing when NASA would be able to land astronauts on Mars — a central goal of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee’s initial draft of the 2013 NASA Authorization Act — if it was held to the funding levels outlined in the bill.

“With the current budget … I would probably say ‘never,’” said former Martin Marietta Chief Executive A. Thomas Young, an industry veteran frequently called upon to assess civil and military space programs.

“I agree,” said NASA Advisory Council chairman Steven Squyres, a Cornell University astronomy professor  and principal investigator for NASA’s long-running Mars Exploration Rovers mission.

The bill, written under the leadership of space subcommittee chairman Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-Miss.) and labeled a “discussion draft,” would freeze NASA’s budget at $16.8 billion — a level not seen since 2007 — in order to comply with mandatory across-the-board spending cuts. Any additional funding that might become available if Congress repeals or replaces the sequester would be divided among NASA’s core human spaceflight programs. The Obama administration’s proposal to relocate an asteroid to lunar orbit to provide a destination for the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, meanwhile, would be set aside in favor of establishing a sustained presence on the lunar surface in preparation for manned Mars missions. Palazzo called the asteroid retrieval mission concept a “costly and complex distraction.”

Young also was critical of the asteroid mission, branding it “not worthy of a world-class space program.”

Squyres made clear he is no fan of the asteroid retrieval concept either, but cautioned Congress not to “either prescribe or proscribe any key milestones in NASA’s Mars exploration road map at this time.

“Personally, I agree with the draft authorization act’s position on the asteroid retrieval mission and I disagree with its position on a sustained lunar presence,” Squyres said.

While no Democrats at the hearing publicly objected to the bill’s asteroid retrieval prohibitions, they found plenty to dislike about its other provisions.

Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Texas, the top Democrat on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, urged her colleagues to revise the bill before trying to move it out of committee. “This is not a bill ready for markup. This is a flawed draft, starting from its funding assumptions, and I cannot support it in its present form,” she said. “I also predict that, if passed by the committee, this bill would be DOA in the Senate, DOA meaning dead on arrival.”

Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) said the bill as currently written would devote too much of NASA’s limited budget to human spaceflight while cutting the agency’s Earth science programs — a specialty of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center just outside her district — by 25 percent.

Shortly after the hearing, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) told a Space Transportation Association luncheon that he would be putting forward a very different bill than his House counterpart. “I’m not going to approve of keeping [the NASA budget] at $16.8 [billion] because it would run the space program and NASA into a ditch,” the chairman of the Senate Commerce space subcommittee said.

Democrats were not alone in criticizing the bill June 19; the subcommittee’s Republican vice chairman, Rep. Mo Brooks of Alabama, told his colleagues he may have to vote against it.

Brooks said the $1.4 billion included in the bill for NASA’s Space Launch System (SLS) — the heavy-lift rocket under development at the Marshall Space Flight Center in his Huntsville district — is insufficient to complete the rocket in time for its 2017 test launch and its 2021 crewed debut. Brooks cited an email from former NASA Administrator Michael Griffin saying SLS needs at least $1.8 billion a year to be ready on time.

“Unless I receive differing expertise that satisfies me that our words in support of human spaceflight match our actions and deeds, I will have no choice but to vote against and otherwise oppose this authorization act,” Brooks said.

Brooks’ plea for more money for SLS put him at odds with Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), who said the program should be canceled if it cannot be built for $1.4 billion a year. “Seems to me that that should be a warning sign to all of us that this project is going to cost a lot more money,” he said.

 

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