Amended NASA Authorization Bill Headed for Vote on House Floor

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WASHINGTON — The House Science, Space and Technology Committee quickly approved the NASA Authorization Act of 2014 (H.R. 4412) by voice vote April 29, sending the policy-heavy bill — which sets no funding guidelines for appropriators — to the House floor.

A manager’s amendment approved during the April 29 markup added several policies to the bill that had not previously made it into the public eye. Besides what is arguably its key policy change — a directive that NASA exempt certain big-ticket programs from a requirement to reserve a portion of their development budgets for potential termination costs — the 2014 Authorization Act would:

  • Bar NASA from using any of its 2014 budget to pay the cost of canceling the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, a telescope-equipped 747SP airplane that NASA proposed grounding as part of its 2015 budget request. Without tapping into the mission’s 2014 science budget, NASA may not be able to wind the mission down by the agency’s self-imposed deadline of Sept. 30, 2015, NASA Astrophysics Director Paul Hertz has said.
  • Require NASA to develop a 20-year plan for maintaining the space-based communications and navigation services currently handled by the agency’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite network.
  • Direct the NASA administrator to coordinate with the Pentagon on development of a new U.S.-built, liquid-fueled rocket engine for military space launches. Such an engine could replace the Russian-made RD-180 that powers United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5.
  • Require NASA to report to Congress about how the agency plans to address security weaknesses in the policies that govern access by foreign citizens to NASA’s network of field centers, as identified in a 2013 investigation by the National Academy of Public Administration.
  • Require the National Academies to compile a lessons-learned report about NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services program, under which Orbital Sciences Corp. and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. are being paid a combined $3.5 billion to haul at least 40 metric tons of cargo to the international space station.
  • Perform biennial reviews of all NASA science missions that are operating beyond their minimum mission lifetime to determine whether the cost of continued operations is worthwhile. Following any year in which NASA performs such a review, the agency must report the results to Congress at the same time it transmits its annual budget request to Capitol Hill. NASA already performs periodic reviews of operating science missions, but not on the schedule prescribed by the bill.

The 2014 NASA Authorization Act passed the House Science, Space and Technology Committee without the partisan rancor that defined last year’s ultimately futile attempt to get a similar bill through the House. Chief among the 2014 bill’s policy prescriptions is a requirement that the NASA contractors building the James Webb Space Telescope, Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket and Orion crew capsule be free to spend money currently reserved to cover the potential cost of canceling those marquee programs.

In a change from the two-year NASA authorization bill the committee was pushing last summer, the agency would retain its ability to unilaterally cancel these programs, although it would be required to notify Congress a year in advance if it decided to do so. Any funds now reserved for termination liability should “be promptly used to make maximum progress” on these programs, the 2014 bill says.

Helping to foster bipartisan harmony on the bill just passed was the budget agreement hashed out in December between Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) and Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) that undid the bulk of automatic discretionary spending cuts known as sequestration that would have applied to NASA and other federal agencies in 2014 and 2015. Last year’s NASA authorization bill, a Republican-penned proposal that garnered no Democratic support, included funding outlays based on the assumption that sequestration would continue.

Democrats countered last year with a bill that assumed sequestration would disappear. The committee’s bill this year short-circuited that toxic disagreement by proposing no funding guidelines whatsoever, other than for 2014 — a year for which appropriators have already written checks.