JWST. Credit: Northrop Grumman

WASHINGTON — The House of Representatives overwhelmingly passed the bipartisan NASA Authorization Act of 2014 June 9, sending the Senate a policy-heavy bill that would ease spending restrictions on certain big-ticket programs, block the White House’s proposal to ground an airborne astrophysics observatory and direct the agency to work with the Pentagon to develop a new liquid-fueled rocket engine.

The bill passed the House only after one of its major policy prescriptions, which would have allowed contractors building NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope, Orion crew capsule and Space Launch System rocket to spend money currently reserved to cover the potential cost of canceling those programs, was watered down heavily. 

That provision was bill language in the version of H.R. 4412 the House Science Committee approved in April, but included in the final version of the House’s bill only as a “sense of Congress,” which does not carry the force of law. 

Unlike a NASA authorization bill that died in the House last year amid partisan fighting about government spending, the latest NASA Authorization Act does not authorize appropriations for future years. That was a means of sidestepping a partisan dispute, which last year proved irreconcilable, about whether authorization legislation must adhere to automatic budget cuts known as sequestration. These cuts, engineered by lawmakers and the White House to trim $1.2 trillion in federal spending over 10 years as part of the Budget Control Act of 2011, would resume in 2016 following a two-year hiatus that became law in December.

The newly approved bill also would forbid the agency from spending any money in 2014 to mothball the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, a telescope-equipped 747SP airplane that NASA proposed grounding as part of its 2015 budget request. The $1 billion observatory was declared operational May 29 after a three-year commissioning phase, and the mission team at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California, has been proceeding with primary science operations ever since.

The bill also directs NASA to work with the Pentagon to develop a new liquid-fueled rocket engine amid doubts about the future availability of Russian-built engines like the RD-180 that powers the first stage of United Launch Alliance’s Atlas 5 rocket. House defense appropriators and authorizers have recommended that the Defense Department spend $220 million next year to develop such an engine.

The House NASA bill would also:

  • Require NASA to report to Congress on how the agency plans to address security weaknesses in the rules governing access by foreign citizens to NASA’s 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.
  • Require NASA to conduct 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.

Follow Dan on Twitter: @Leone_SN

Dan Leone is the NASA reporter for SpaceNews, where he also covers other civilian-run U.S. government space programs and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He joined SpaceNews in 2011.Dan earned a bachelor's degree in public communications...