Congressional Committees Overhauling Obama’s NASA Plan

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WASHINGTON — White House plans to launch NASA’s human spaceflight program on a commercial trajectory drew a sharp rebuke from lawmakers in July with a spate of bills that would slash proposed budgets for private-sector astronaut space taxis while backing key elements of the Constellation program that has been marked for termination.

A bipartisan 2011 spending package approved July 22 by the full Senate Appropriations Committee includes the $312 million U.S. President Barack Obama requested to demonstrate commercial systems for delivering cargo to the international space station, but would halve the administration’s request for a commercial crew initiative and curtail spending proposed for exploration technology demonstrations. Meanwhile, the measure would pump $3 billion into continued development of Constellation’s Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and a heavy-lift rocket needed to launch it into deep space, funding that was not contained in the president’s budget request.

“The bill restructures NASA’s human spaceflight programs, providing for a new heavy-lift launch vehicle and crew capsule for exploring beyond low-Earth orbit,” said Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.), the veteran lawmaker who chairs the Senate Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee that introduced and approved the spending bill during a short legislative markup session July 21.

Mikulski characterized the bill as a solid compromise for the space program, a sentiment echoed in a report accompanying the 2011 Commerce, Justice, Science appropriations bill (S.3636), part of a $65 billion federal spending package that includes NASA funding.

“The Committee believes that the restructured program called for in this act should be sustainable from one administration to the next,” the report states. “The United States cannot reinvent its space program every 4 years.”

The bill tracks roughly with proposed NASA authorization legislation awaiting approval on the Senate floor. Meanwhile, House lawmakers drafted a companion authorization bill that would effectively continue the Constellation program, under which NASA is developing rockets and capsules designed to replace the space shuttle and eventually carry astronauts to the Moon.

In its report, the Senate Appropriations Committee describes the NASA funding measure as “a solid compromise for human spaceflight that reaches beyond low Earth orbit with affordable vehicles” and makes key investments in the “burgeoning commercial launch industry that is already poised to bring cargo” to the space station next year. The bill also adds $620 million for one additional flight of the space shuttle before it retires in 2011, provided an independent panel determines the mission can be done safely.

The bill includes $1.9 billion to begin development next year of a heavy-lift rocket to be fielded by 2017, a significant departure from Obama’s proposal to invest $3 billion in studying propulsion and other heavy-lift technologies before settling on a vehicle design in 2015. The measure sets an $11.5 billion cost cap on the program over seven years and stipulates that it be managed by NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center in Alabama, home to Republican Sen. Richard Shelby, the ranking member on the appropriations subcommittee that oversees NASA spending.

The bill also adds $1.1 billion to continue development of Orion, the Lockheed Martin-designed crew capsule Obama initially sought to cancel along with the rest of Constellation but which won a partial reprieve in April when the president directed NASA to use the Orion design as the basis for a space station crew lifeboat. NASA would get $5.5 billion through 2017 to build an Orion capsule capable of launching atop the heavy-lift vehicle called for in the bill. The committee sets a goal of having Orion ready to deliver astronauts to the space station by late 2014.

Although the measure would fully fund NASA’s request for its Commercial Orbital Space Transportation (COTS) program, under which Dulles, Va.-based Orbital Sciences Corp. and Hawthorne, Calif.-based Space Exploration Technologies Corp. are demonstrating competing cargo vessels for the space station, it provides only half of the $500 million the agency is seeking to foster development of commercial crew taxis for ferrying astronauts to the orbital outpost.

Companion legislation approved June 29 by the House Appropriations commerce, justice, science subcommittee would fully fund NASA’s $19 billion budget request for 2011, including the $312 million proposed for COTS, but would fence off most of the $4.2 billion allocated for human spaceflight pending enactment of a NASA authorization bill that would set overall funding levels and provide policy guidance to the agency.

Both the House and Senate versions of the authorization bill reduce spending for commercial crew and technology demonstration programs and impose restrictions that could hamper NASA’s efforts in those areas.

While the three-year authorization bill approved July 15 by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee is regarded as a compromise, companion legislation approved July 22 by the House Science and Technology Committee guts the president’s $5.9 billion request for commercial crew programs over the next five years while continuing much of the work being done under Constellation. The House bill directs NASA to field a government-owned system capable of ferrying crews to and from the space station by the end of 2015.

During a six-hour markup of the House legislation July 22, Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, said the bill would create a balanced, sustainable manned space exploration program that allows NASA to live within its means. The bill, which was amended to authorize spending levels through 2013, provides just $150 million for commercial crew taxi development over the next three years and proposes another $300 million that would be provided through a NASA-backed loan program.

“We are in tough economic times, and we cannot do it all,” Gordon said, adding that “some of the ‘nice-to-haves’ have had to be deferred, and worthy activities have been funded at lower levels than some of us would like.”

The bill would authorize more than $13 billion through 2013 to develop rockets and spacecraft that leverage NASA’s roughly $10 billion investment to date in Constellation.

“The Constellation program that we know is unexecutable with the funds that have been — and are likely to be — appropriated,” said Gordon, who rebuffed several amendments from both sides of the aisle aimed at the bill’s commercial crew and cargo program funding levels and policy guidance.

Among the 23 amendments adopted during the markup was the addition of an extra space shuttle mission to NASA’s manifest offered by Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D-Fla.) that could bring the House bill in line with both the Senate authorization and appropriations measures. The amendment would shift $900 million from other parts of the House bill to fund the additional flight if the NASA administrator deems the mission necessary, including $525 million from the restructured human space exploration program in 2011 and a combined $375 million from the space station budget over the next two years.

Although Kosmas offered amendments to restore commercial crew and technology demonstration funding in the bill, her efforts were defeated. However, the committee adopted an amendment offered by Rep. Ben Luján (D-N.M.) that would remove a $1 million cap on NASA’s Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research program.

Like the Senate appropriations measure, the House and Senate authorization bills require NASA to immediately begin work on a heavy-lift rocket, though they also require the agency to leverage the space shuttle solid-rocket motor technology that serves as the foundation of the Ares rockets designed under the Constellation program. The Senate bill calls for a heavy-lift vehicle and deep space capsule to be fully operational by the end of 2016; the House bill would give NASA six months from the date of enactment to select a launch vehicle design and sets a goal of fielding the rocket by 2020.

Although it is unclear when the Senate bills might move to the floor for a vote, House aides said the authorization bill could be taken up as early as the week of July 26. However, opponents of the House authorization bill suggested the measure might not come to a floor vote at all: In a July 21 letter to Gordon expressing support for the president’s new direction for NASA, 13 California Democrats urged the committee to restore funding for commercial crew and cargo initiatives and exploration technology programs requested in the 2011 spending plan.

“These reductions will have a serious effect on California’s workforce and economy, and that of many states,” states the letter, which was spearheaded by Rep. Anna Eshoo, a Silicon Valley Democrat who has worked closely with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on technology policy initiatives in Congress. “These are areas that should be the cornerstone of NASA’s new direction because they will drive innovation and job creation across the nation.”

Gordon said his bill supports elements of Obama’s plan, including a pledge to continue flying the space station through at least 2020 and fund a space technology program designed to spur innovation.

But Bretton Alexander, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation here, said the House authorization bill would do little to narrow the gap between the space shuttle’s scheduled retirement and a follow-on capability, forcing NASA to rely on Russia to deliver U.S. astronauts to the space station until a U.S. human spaceflight capability is re-established.

“Based on the proposed levels of funding for Russian Soyuz flights versus commercial crew services, it would appear that the House Science Committee has more faith in Russian technology developed in the 1960s than in America’s own aerospace industry,” Alexander said in a July 19 e-mail, asserting that the bill fails to fund the goals it sets for the agency. “At a time when private companies are willing to invest their own money to help create jobs, the House Science Committee bill is a clear job destroyer.”

The House measure also would require NASA to hold privately developed space taxis to the same safety standards the agency enforces for government-owned and -operated systems. It further directs that the per-seat cost for commercial crew systems not exceed that of the government-owned capabilities called for in the legislation.

Although the measure would limit use of the government-owned system “once commercial crew transport and crew rescue services meeting safety requirements become operational,” it would also require commercial space firms to give NASA “ongoing insight into the design methodologies, processes, technologies and other information employed in the development and production of a commercial transportation system.” In addition, NASA would need to sort out “all indemnification and liability issues” associated with commercial crew space taxis before awarding contracts to private firms.