Editorial: Two Down, One To Go

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The U.S. Congress is having what could turn out to be a very productive year as far as NASA is concerned. Not only have lawmakers eased restrictions on buying Russian hardware for the international space station and passed a spending bill that fully funds the space agency’s 2006 budget request; they are on the verge of passing the first NASA Authorization Act since 2000.

Both the House and Senate versions of the authorization bill endorse U.S. President George W. Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration, and also would allow NASA to award significant cash prizes for technical innovations relevant to that goal. However, both versions also contain provisions that are highly problematic for NASA, and these will need to be modified or deleted altogether before a final authorization bill is sent to President Bush for signature.

There are no such issues with the amendment to the Iran Nonproliferation Act of 2000 (INA). It was absolutely the correct thing to do, and will undo a mess of Congress’ own making by allowing NASA to buy the Russian Soyuz and Progress vehicles needed to keep the space station occupied and semi-productive for the next several years.

As for the Science, State, Justice, Commerce and Related Agencies Appropriations Act of 2006, which includes NASA’s funding, lawmakers did meet the Bush Administration’s request. But as in past years, the bill, which like the INA amendment was signed into law Nov. 22 , also sets aside a portion of NASA’s funds for lawmakers’ pet projects. While the earmarks in the 2006 budget consume fewer dollars than those in the 2005 NASA budget, they still represent a significant problem for the agency.

Pork-barrel spending is nothing new and will always be a part of the appropriations process, but the earmarks in the 2006 NASA bill are especially onerous because of the budget pressures the agency faces in trying to get the shuttle fleet flying safely again and simultaneously getting the Vision for Space Exploration off the ground.

Meanwhile, the two versions of the NASA authorization bill, while endorsing the president’s exploration plan, also contain provisions that could make it difficult to implement. Both bills mandate, for example, that NASA maintain a minimum space station crew size of six and conduct microgravity research aboard the station that is unrelated to human exploration beyond low Earth orbit.

While it is true that conducting meaningful research aboard the space station is difficult with the two people that comprise the standard crew today, mandating a specific larger number could have unforeseen negative consequences, as did the INA. Space station crew sizes should be driven by the research priorities of NASA and its international partners, and enabled by a logical assembly sequence.

Questions surrounding the future of the space shuttle aside, mandating a six-person crew could drive costly technical decisions designed to meet that requirement that do little if anything to enhance the space station’s research capabilities. There could even be scenarios in which such decisions close off future options for expanding the space station’s research capacity at a reasonable cost.

If the congressional conferees insist on keeping the space station crew-size mandate in the final NASA authorization bill, let it be the House version, which would permit the space agency to seek a waiver of that requirement. That way Congress could make its point without forcing NASA into decisions that are potentially damaging to the space station or future exploration programs.

The conferees ought to dispense altogether with the provisions that would force NASA to spend a certain amount of money on space station research that is unrelated to human space exploration. NASA teams have spent considerable time and effort to align the space station research agenda with the president’s exploration vision. The research provisions in the House and Senate authorization bills would effectively undo that work and siphon off resources intended to serve NASA’s longer-term goals.

Further, the fact that NASA’s research agenda is focused on human exploration does not mean other types of microgravity research will not get done aboard the space station. NASA’s international partners have their own space station priorities and may well pursue research in microgravity fields such as materials science.

NASA also could do without a provision in the House bill that would require congressional reauthorization of NASA programs whose costs grow by $1 billion or 30 percent — whichever is smaller.

Although the measure is intended to address a real problem with space programs — just ask the U.S. Air Force — halting a program pending reauthorization will only drive its costs up further. A better idea is legislation that more closely mirrors the Nunn-McCurdy provision, which requires congressional notification for programs that hit the 15 percent cost-growth threshold and recertification for those that reach the 25 percent mark.

Lawmakers and staffers in the House and Senate obviously have worked hard to get a NASA authorization bill close to passage for the first time in five years, but they need to purge the final legislation of measures that needlessly tie NASA’s hands at a time of significant budget challenges. If they fail to do that, President Bush should veto the authorization bill.