WASHINGTON — The U.S. House Science Committee on Dec. 11 approved a bill that would require NASA to obtain legislative permission to cancel some of its most expensive human spaceflight and science programs, while at the same time allowing contractors for these programs to tap into hundreds of millions of dollars in reserve funding.

The bill, H.R. 3625, was introduced Dec. 2 by Rep. Mo Brooks (R-Ala.), whose district includes the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville. It had 15 co-sponsors, including five Democrats, as of Dec. 11. The proposal was approved by a voice vote and now heads to the House floor.

The bill’s provisions apply to the Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, the international space station and the James Webb Space Telescope.

Should the bill become law, NASA would lose the ability to unilaterally terminate these programs — something federal agencies are typically allowed to do. It would also give these programs leeway to tap into the so-called termination liability funds that contractors set aside to cover any expenses that arise if the government cancels their programs. For the missions covered under H.R. 3625, these set-asides total hundreds of millions of dollars, which could be used for development if the bill passes.

Before the vote, a senior NASA official told an industry advisory panel there was some merit to allowing programs to tap into their termination liability reserves.

“It makes a lot of sense,” Robert Lightfoot, NASA’s associate administrator, told members of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) here Dec. 11. “There’s funding there that could be available to go do some stuff,” said Lightfoot, former director of Marshall.

As of Oct. 31, termination liability set-asides for the SLS, Orion and space station programs were, respectively, $192 million, $226 million and $89 million, NASA spokesman Trent Perrotto wrote in an email.

Lightfoot took no position on the provisions of H.R. 3625 that would require NASA to obtain legislative permission to cancel these programs.

But Lightfoot’s former boss, who left NASA in September, did.

“We should not be debating whether or not we should have the ability to terminate a program that is not working in a cost-plus environment,” former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver told COMSTAC only a few minutes after Lightfoot spoke. The ability to cancel a program for convenience is essential to protecting the government against runaway cost increases in big development programs, she said.

Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.