Griffin Expresses Some Concern Over NASA Authorization Bills

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The U.S. Congress adjourned for the Thanksgiving holiday recess on the verge of authorizing for the first time the space exploration vision outlined by U.S. President George W. Bush in January 2004.

Having already passed bills providing NASA’s 2006 funding and easing a five-year-old law that stood in the way of buying Russian hardware for the international space station, lawmakers are within striking distance of one more key item on the civil-space agenda: passage of the first NASA Authorization Act since 2000.

The Senate and the House of Representatives already have passed their own versions of the legislation — S. 1281 and H.R. 3070 respectively — and intend to meet in December to negotiate a final version that can be sent to the White House to be signed into law.

NASA officials say they are pleased that both versions of the bill endorse the space exploration vision and give the agency some of the tools and policies it needs to carry it out, including authority to award cash prizes worth $10 million or more to spur technological innovations.

But between the two versions NASA has some concerns , not the least of which is the number of reports — some 50 in all — that the agency would be required to submit to Congress. NASA Administrator Mike Griffin outlined his concerns in a 15-page letter to Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), chairman of the Senate Commerce science and space subcommittee. A copy of the Nov. 10 letter was obtained by Space News.

“NASA believes that there are elements of both H.R. 3070 and S. 1281 that will be helpful in achieving the agency’s goals,” Griffin wrote. “However, other elements of each bill would be severely detrimental to NASA’s ability to carry out the space policy and program outlined by the President.”

Chief among Griffin’s concerns are provisions in both bills that would require NASA to complete a space station that delivers on longstanding promises about crew size, scientific capabilities and research priorities .

Both bills would mandate a minimum space station crew size of six and force NASA to restore a variety of microgravity research efforts not directly related to human space exploration, the new focus of NASA’s space station research agenda. The House version directs NASA to allocate 15 percent of space station research funding to efforts unrelated to human spaceflight; the Senate version is more specific about which microgravity research areas NASA should pursue and directs that at least $100 million annually be spent on them.

Griffin argues that mandating the space station’s crew size and research focus would tie NASA’s hands as it sets out to reorient the human spaceflight program toward lunar exploration.

“It is NASA’s desire to increase crew size, but a technical solution that is legislatively mandated could leave the nation with a less capable station, and may not be safely achievable until assembly is completed and potential commercial cargo and crew transfer vehicles, or the [Crew Exploration Vehicle] are operational,” Griffin said in his letter . “We fully recognize the need to maintain a balanced [space station] program; however these provisions restrict the agency’s ability to manage the program.”

If language mandating a minimum crew size is included in the final legislation, Griffin said NASA would prefer the House version , which would permit NASA to request a waiver of that requirement.

On the research provisions, Griffin is taking a firmer line, urging that they be deleted altogether.

“NASA has recently completed the Exploration Systems Architecture Study (ESAS) and the Shuttle/Station Configurations Options Team (S/SCOT) studies regarding the configuration, research agenda, and assembly sequence for the space station,” Griffin wrote. “The top [station] research priorities have been identified as human research to develop health maintenance and space flight medical care capabilities for astronauts, and long duration validation of microgravity test beds for fluid physics and combustion research to support life support, environmental control, and fire safety.”

Imposing research mandates on the space station , Griffin wrote, “would cause delays or increased costs for exploration. To avoid such detrimental impacts, NASA urges these mandates be deleted.”

The Senate bill would designate the international space station a “national laboratory.” Hutchison, the sponsor of that language, has said doing so could make the space station eligible for other federal funds. Griffin said NASA has no problem with giving the station national lab status provided it does not interfere with the agency’s priorities.

Griffin also takes issue with several directives between the two bills that would require NASA to spend about $500 million more than planned on aeronautics, preparing for a Hubble Space Telescope servicing mission, and other projects and programs deemed priorities by lawmakers.

Also causing NASA heartburn is a House provision that would freeze spending on any program that has exceeded its cost estimate by 30 percent or $1 billion — whichever is lower — until Congress votes to restart the program. If that provision were law today, NASA would be forced to stop work on the James Webb Space Telescope pending congressional reapproval.

“[T]he complete cessation of funding for a major program until Congress explicitly reauthorizes it has the potential to impose substantial disruptions and could well result in further increasing costs,” Griffin wrote, requesting that the measure be struck from the final bill.

Other of Griffin’s concerns include:

– Language prohibiting NASA from laying off civil servants before 2007.

– New prohibitions on buying certain goods and services from vendors outside the United States. Griffin said the language, if enacted, could prohibit NASA from contracting for the Canadian robot arm it needs to service Hubble and from buying 28 digital television camera lenses made in Japan and needed to monitor the shuttle during launch.

– Senate language making NASA responsible for providing lifetime health care for astronauts and their families.

– House provisions that would establish a standing independent commission to oversee space station safety. NASA says the commission would duplicate functions of the NASA Engineering and Safety Center and the Independent Technical Authority established after the Space Shuttle Columbia accident. NASA objects on constitutional grounds to a separate proposal that would have members of human spaceflight accident investigation commissions appointed by the president from a list provided by Congress.

The House has named its members to the House-Senate conference committee that will negotiate the final version of the NASA Authorization Act. Republican conferees include Reps. Sherwood Boehlert (N.Y.), chairman of the House Science Committee; Ken Calvert (Calif.), chairman of the House Science space and aeronautics subcommittee; and Majority Leader Tom DeLay ( Texas). Democrats include Reps. Bart Gordon (Tenn.), the Science Committee’s ranking member; Mark Udall (Colo.); Michael Honda (Calif.) and Sheila Jackson Lee (Texas).

The Senate adjourned Nov. 18 without announcing its slate of conferees but Hutchison and her Democratic counterpart, Sen. Bill Nelson ( Fla.), are certain to be among them.

The House of Representatives reconvenes Dec. 6; the Senate reconvenes Dec. 12.