JWST. Credit: Northrop Grumman

WASHINGTON — A one-year NASA authorization bill that cleared its first legislative hurdle April 9 would require NASA to allow the contractors building the James Webb Space Telescope, Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket and Orion crew capsule to spend money currently set aside to cover the potential cost of canceling these big-ticket programs.

NASA would not need congressional approval to cancel JWST, SLS or Orion — a change from the two-year NASA authorization bill the House Science Committee was pushing last summer to no avail — but would be required to notify Congress a year in advance if it wants to cancel any of these programs for convenience. Any funds already held in reserve to cover termination liability, the bill says, should “be promptly used to make maximum progress” on these marquee programs.

If NASA does decide to terminate any of these programs for convenience, the bill says, Congress would step in and approve a supplemental appropriations request to cover the costs.

In stark contrast to last year’s highly partisan, hours-long markup, the House Science space subcommittee took less than a half-hour April 9 to send the 91-page NASA Authorization Act of 2014 (H.R. 4412) to the full committee for consideration.

Authorization bills do not provide funding for federal agencies, although they do provide guidelines for appropriations legislation that does. In this case, however, appropriators have already acted, approving $17.6 billion for NASA in January as part of an omnibus spending bill that runs through September.

Unlike last year’s bill, which stalled after clearing the Republican-controlled committee on a largely party-line vote, H.R. 4412 does not bar NASA from spending money on the White House-proposed Asteroid Redirect Mission. It does, however, require NASA to submit within 180 days of enactment a report detailing the mission’s cost and schedule, and what technologies it will use that could also be used for human Mars missions but that could not also be gained from lunar missions.

NASA would also be required to report within 60 days on a 2021 Mars flyby mission concept proposed by the Dennis Tito-backed Inspiration Mars Foundation and favored by the committee’s GOP majority as a better objective for NASA than relocating an asteroid to lunar space by 2025.

Another highlight of H.R. 4412 is an eventual prohibition against NASA paying Russia to take astronauts to the international space station aboard the Soyuz system. NASA now pays Russia about $70 million for each astronaut round trip.

NASA has spent roughly $2 billion during the last few years fostering a domestic alternative to Soyuz through its Commercial Crew Program, which aims to field by 2017 at least one of the three competing commercially designed systems that Boeing Space Exploration, Sierra Nevada Space Systems and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. are working on.

NASA is seeking $848 million for the Commercial Crew Program in 2015, which is about $150 million more than the highest appropriation Congress has ever made for the program. The authorization bill that cleared the House Science space subcommittee April 9 would require NASA to study the implications of funding the Commercial Crew Program with annual appropriations between $600 million to $800 million.

Other directives in the proposed NASA Authorization Act of 2014 would require NASA to:

  • Set a firmer pace for planetary science missions, including a small Discovery-class launch every two years, a medium-sized New Frontiers-class launch every five years, and a new flagship-class mission every 10 years, beginning with a mission to Europa in 2021.
  • Use the National Academy for Public Administration to review the effectiveness of the NASA Advisory Council, an agency chartered advisory group that provides nominally independent advice to the NASA administrator.
  • Provide cost estimates for extending international space station operations through 2024, as the White House proposed in January, and through 2030, as some in Congress would like.
  • Further study the cost of using a donated spy telescope with a 2.4-meter-diameter primary mirror for the planned Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, the next big NASA astrophysics mission after the James Webb Space Telescope. NASA got two of these telescopes from the National Reconnaissance Office in 2012, and House lawmakers want to know how much the gifts, which must be stored at NASA’s expense until flown, are costing the space agency.

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.