Congress Authorizes Funding for NASA Exploration Vision

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NASA received authorization for the money it requested to get ready for a return to the Moon and also got a congressional endorsement of that goal in the House Science Committee’s much revamped markup of the NASA authorization bill.

The bill, passed unanimously July 14 by the committee and due to go to the full House for a vote early the week of July 18 , is silent on the question of whether the administration must retire the space shuttle by 2010. The earlier markup, passed by the House Science space and aeronautics subcommittee, had mandated shuttle retirement by Dec. 31, 2010. Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-N.Y.) said that the committee did not want to be overly prescriptive and order NASA to act on a specific shuttle retirement requirement.

The bill resulted from several days of political bargaining and appeared to have been sparked by a successful gambit by Democrats who withheld their support from the earlier markup. Democrats then presented their own alternative bill. The final result was “a thoughtful bipartisan compromise,” according to Boehlert.

“Because of the compromise, the bill will now provide more specificity about authorization levels for the 2006 and 2007 budgets, will make those levels more enforceable and will endorse a shuttle mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope , with the obvious caveat that it should not be done if the safety calculus changes,” Boehlert said at the markup. The bill authorizes $150 million for the rescue in the 2006 budget.

The bill authorizes $16.47 billion for the space agency in fiscal 2006 — the same as the House Appropriations Committee — and $16.96 billion for fiscal 2007, the same as the president’s request. The bill also requires that international space station research include topics beyond those related to the effects on humans of space exploration. Boehlert made it clear that he did not favor such a course, but the language’s inclusion was symptomatic of the compromises reached in crafting the bill. The bill also requires that the station be able to accommodate a crew of six and be accessible to the Crew Exploration Vehicle.

The new markup also addresses a persistent issue that has roused congressional interest over the last few years: the soundness of NASA’s bookkeeping. The markup forces NASA to account for money in four broad accounts and forbids the agency from moving money between them.

In his opening statement at the markup, the committee’s senior Democrat, Rep. Bart Gordon of Tennessee, said that it was “important to do what we can to ensure that adequate firewalls exist between NASA accounts so that a productive balance is maintained between NASA’s core missions — while still providing flexibility to deal with emergencies.”

The new markup also authorizes NASA spending for two years, as opposed to the earlier one year specified in the subcommittee markup.

Among the most important issues raised during the markup was the fate of an amendment offered by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) about the Iran Nonproliferation Act (INA). The proposed amendment would allow NASA to pay Russia cash or barter for goods and services related to the international space station and NASA’s exploration program. The INA currently prohibits such payments. Rohrabacher offered and then withdrew his amendment. But Boehlert assured the committee that the issue would be dealt with before the bill is sent to the president for signing.

In something of a cliff-hanger, the committee defeated an amendment by Rep. Jerry Costello (D-Ill.) that would have removed language in the bill that ensures “Buy American” provisions do not violate international trade agreements. The final vote was 18-18, and a tie means defeat. A visibly concerned chairman could be seen counting members as he realized how close the vote would be. When the final result became clear Boehlert leaned back and smiled.

The committee agreed, by voice vote, to another amendment by Costello that requires NASA to report to Congress on the number of its contracts that are performed overseas and the dollar value of such contracts.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) offered and withdrew three amendments that would have: established specific funding allocations for historically black colleges and universities; established a grant program to encourage minority women to pursue careers in space and aeronautics; and established funding allocations for hispanic serving institutions.

By Colin Clark