WASHINGTON — After months of bipartisan wrangling on Capitol Hill over the future of NASA’s manned spaceflight program, the agency’s top two officials urged support for the Senate version of a three-year NASA authorization bill headed for a vote in the U.S. House this evening, even as a group of House lawmakers voiced strong opposition to the measure.

“We truly, truly believe that the time has come for us to have some clarifying direction,” NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said during a House aerospace caucus luncheon here Sept. 29, asserting the Senate measure, S. 3729, incorporates “the very best parts of the administration’s proposals,” including a top-line spending authorization of $19 billion in 2011, a call to increase funding for aeronautics and science, extending the international space station through at least 2020 and a sustained program of exploration beyond low Earth orbit. “We encourage all of you to support a bold and vibrant future for NASA by supporting the authorization bill.”

The new direction U.S. President Barack Obama outlined for NASA in his 2011 budget requestdrew fire from lawmakers who said the plan to cancel the Moon-bound Constellation program and rely on privately developed crew taxis for transportation to and from the space station, coupled with a deferral of work on a heavy-lift launch vehicle, would cede U.S. leadership in space exploration. But despite tense and at times rancorous debate, Garver said she sees progress toward a better future for the agency.

“I believe the debate has been healthy,” she said. “It is certainly bipartisan support for space. We are not arguing over whether we’re going to have a robust and vibrant space program, it is how best to do it.”

Although the House Science and Technology Committee during the summer approved a bill that provided far less funding than the administration requested for commercial crew transportation development, the measure headed for a vote on the House floor is identical to the Senate legislation, which funds that activity more generously.

House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) reluctantly endorsed S. 3729 in a statement issued Sept. 27, asserting passage of a flawed NASA authorization is better than no bill at all. Two days later, however, Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who chairs the panel’s space and aeronautics subcommittee, voiced opposition to the Senate measure in a letter penned by a bipartisan group of lawmakers.

“The Senate has sent over a flawed NASA Authorization that will have serious consequences for the space agency and the future of American leadership in space,” the letter states. The lawmakers took issue with several aspects of the bill, including a provision that calls for reduced funding for NASA’s so-called STEM education and minority outreach programs, prescriptive language that dictates a space-shuttle derived heavy-lift launch vehicle, funding for commercial crew initiatives in the absence of threshold requirements for private investment and an “unfunded mandate to keep the shuttle infrastructure going through Sept. 30 next year, after NASA plans to retire it.

“S. 3729 is a bad bill and should be rejected,” the letter states, asserting that such weighty decisions affecting NASA’s future deserve more time for debate. “The House should then approve the compromise NASA Authorization Act of 2010 after the recess and send it on to the Senate so that NASA can be put on a productive path forward.”

Garver said with the space shuttle approaching retirement, it is important to the agency’s work force to pass an authorization bill before Congress breaks for the mid-term elections in November.

“We believe passage of this bill will really provide a lot of clarity so that the work force as we go forward can realize there is this amazing future and support, bipartisan support, bicameral support, administration and congressional support,” she said. “I’ve been trying to talk about that message with the work force, and I don’t just mean the 18,000 NASA civil servants but more than 100,000 contractors as well. People can do different things in this country and they’ve decided to dedicate their lives toward doing this and I think it would really, really be meaningful at this time to be agreeing in this positive direction.”

Garver said congressional appropriators will have to determine how best to fund the additional space shuttle flight authorized in S. 3729 later this year when they are expected to meet during a lame-duck session.

“That is one of a number of issues obviously to work out with appropriators and it’s one of the reasons I think it’s good to get this guidance is so that folks know what they’re working toward … in the lame duck session,” she said.

Despite prescriptive language in the Senate bill that directs NASA to begin building a space shuttle-derived heavy-lift launch vehicle next year, Garver said the agency would work with stakeholders in Congress to determine an appropriate transportation architecture for exploration beyond low Earth orbit.

“I truly believe from talking with people on the Hill, people who put this bill together, that they want to work with us to have the very best next launch vehicles that we can,” she said. “So I feel quite positive that we’re going to be able to work together to get a very, very worthwhile program going forward that includes an earlier launch vehicle as they will likely direct.”

In a Sept. 29 statement posted on NASA’s website during Garver’s speech, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden described the House vote as “historic” and urged lawmakers to pass it.

“Passage of this bill represents an important step forward towards helping us achieve key goals the President has laid out,” Bolden said. “This important change in direction will not only help us chart a new path in space, but can help us retool for the industries and jobs of the future that will be vital for long term economic growth.”

Bolden said more work awaits “as the 2011 appropriations process moves forward, but the continuing support for NASA ensures America’s space program will remain at the forefront of pioneering new frontiers in science, technology, and exploration.”



House Gives Final Approval to NASA Authorization Act