A bill that would keep NASA on a path to retire the space shuttle in 2010 and build a successor capable of reaching the Moon and points beyond cleared the House Science and Technology space and aeronautics subcommittee May 20.


By reaffirming the United States’ now four-year-old goal to retire the space shuttle as the first step toward
leaving low
Earth orbit, the bill would help ensure a measure of continuity for NASA when the White House changes hands following November’s U.S.
presidential election.


The subcommittee made quick work of approving the NASA Authorization Act of 2008 (H.R. 6063). It now heads to the full committee, which is expected to take it up in early June. With no amendments offered, subcommittee members unanimously approved H.R. 6063 by voice vote, allowing Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.) to gavel the markup session to a close less than six minutes after it began.


“This is a common sense, fiscally responsible bill that will set NASA on a good course for the future,” Melancon said. “H.R. 6063 ensures that NASA’s centers are healthy and capable of supporting the agency’s challenging missions.” Melancon was filling in for Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), the subcommittee’s chairman, who was forced by travel delays to miss the markup of the legislation he had introduced five days earlier.


In addition to reauthorizing NASA for 2009, H.R. 6063 directs the U.S. space agency to squeeze in one additional shuttle flight in 2010 to launch the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) to the international space station. It also approves the agency’s plan to fly two dedicated logistics flights to the station.


Those missions already have been budgeted but not formally approved. The bill authorizes $150 million to help cover the cost of adding the AMS flight to the shuttle manifest, but does not specify how NASA should pay for the mission if Congress does not actually appropriate the money.


The bill additionally sets generous spending levels for the U.S. space agency that the White House and congressional appropriators are free to ignore. The bill authorizes a $19.2 billion budget for NASA for 2009, or about $1.6 billion more than the White House is requesting.


The bill also would authorize appropriators to give NASA an additional $1 billion in 2009 expressly for the purpose of accelerating development of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and Ares 1 launcher.


Orion and Ares currently are on track to enter service in March 2015, some four-and-a-half years after the space shuttle is due to conduct its last flight. While NASA officials intend to retire the shuttle in 2010, H.R. 6063 would alleviate some of that schedule pressure by tying the shuttle fleet’s retirement not to a specific date but to completing 12 remaining missions.

The legislation would permit NASA to remain on course for returning to the Moon around 2020 but encourages the agency to embrace international collaboration more fully as it pursues its space exploration goals.


If H.R. 6063 becomes law as it currently is written, NASA would be required to name the United States’ first lunar outpost after Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first person to set foot on the Moon, and to design the outpost to operate for extended periods without humans present.


On the Earth science front, the bill would authorize NASA to proceed with the development of Glory, the climate-monitoring satellite that breached Nunn-McCurdy-like cost controls put in place by the 2005 NASA Authorization Act. The Nunn-McCurdy law requires the Pentagon to notify Congress and take various corrective actions when programs experience cost growth that reaches certain thresholds.


NASA also would be required to produce a plan for ensuring continued collection of the type of thermal infrared land imagery returned by the Landsat 5 and Landsat 7 satellites. The Landsat spacecraft NASA has in development for a 2011 launch does not include a thermal band.
According to the bill, NASA would be required to present Congress with an option for adding a thermal band to the Landsat Data Continuity Mission while minimizing the cost and schedule delay associated with the change.


H.R. 6063 would direct NASA to develop a plan for doing something with the Deep Space Climate Observatory –
the mothballed Earth-observing satellite formerly known as Triana – besides letting it sit idle
in a storage shed at the Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. Lawmakers would like to see NASA give the spacecraft to another agency, reconfigure it for a different Earth science mission, find a private sector or international partner willing to fly it as is
or at the very least raid it for parts.


H.R. 6063
also would direct NASA “to take all necessary steps” to ensure that future observatory-class space telescopes bound for low
Earth orbit – or a Lagrangian point – be designed to allow robotic or human servicing and repair.


The bill also would give the White House Office and Science and Technology Policy
nine months to send Congress a plan for “restarting and sustaining” the domestic production of the plutonium-238 NASA needs for
future deep space missions.


Rep. Tom Feeney (R-Fla.)
, the subcommittee’s ranking Republican, attributed the bill’s easy approval by the panel to the bipartisan spirit in which it was drafted. He praised Richard Oberman, the subcommittee’s Democratic staff director, for engaging Republican staff in the process from the beginning.


Bill Adkins, a House Science Committee staff member from 2000 to 2006, said there is a lot for the space community to like about H.R. 6063, such as the “strong signal” the measure sends about the need to fund NASA at a significantly higher level than either the White House or
Congress so far has been willing to support.


But he said the bill’s shuttle language makes him “a little nervous” since it would open the door to flying the shuttle beyond 2010.


“What makes me nervous is [that] it’s impossible to predict if the shuttle will extend a little bit past 2010 or a lot past 2010,” Adkins said
, adding that while a short extension would be no big deal, a long extension “could be devastating.”


Adkins also questioned the wisdom of pressuring NASA to add a thermal band to the Landsat Data Continuity Mission given that contracts for the main instrument and spacecraft bus
already have been awarded.

But he said these “nits” were outweighed by the bill’s strengths, not the least of which is the bill’s potential to send NASA into a new presidential administration with back-to-back endorsements for its exploration plans by both Republican- and Democratic-controlled congresses.


In order for that to happen, however, both the House and Senate must pass an identical measure that U.S. President George W. Bush will sign.


Adkins said the bill has a 50-50 chance of getting enacted this year. On the one hand, the bill seems to have very strong bipartisan support. On the other hand, lawmakers are dealing with a very compressed legislative schedule due to November’s presidential and congressional elections, he said.

Comments: bberger@space.com