Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), sponsor of the Space Leadership Preservation Act, says his bill would make NASA "less political and more professional." Credit: House Science Committee webcast

WASHINGTON — Members of Congress and former NASA officials advocated Feb. 25 for long-shot legislation that would restructure the management of the space agency, a move they argue would provide stability for the agency during the transition to the next administration.

Republican members of the House Science Committee expressed support during a two-hour hearing for the Space Leadership Preservation Act, a bill that would create a board of directors for NASA who would select nominees for the position of NASA administrator, and give that administrator a fixed 10-year term.

“We simply have to give NASA greater stability,” said Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), the bill’s sponsor, in testimony at the committee meeting. “We need to make this agency less political and more professional.”

Culberson and others at the hearing cited as the primary reason for this legislation the shakeup in space policy created by the Obama administration when it sought to cancel the Constellation program in 2010 and end efforts to return humans to the moon, the goal set out by the previous administration and endorsed by Congress in two NASA authorization bills.

“Presidential transitions often have provided a challenge to NASA programs that require continuity and budget stability, but few have been as rocky as the administration change we experienced seven years ago,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the committee, in his opening statement.

Some of the other witnesses at the hearing agreed with that assessment, and minced few words in doing so. “We were executing a powerful and compelling new plan” when the Obama administration took office, argued Mike Griffin, who served as NASA administrator from 2005 until 2009. “But by early 2010, just a year later, this strategy was in disarray.”

“I believe program cancellation decisions that are made by bureaucracies behind closed doors, without input by the people, are divisive, damaging, cowardly and many times more expensive in the long run,” said former astronaut Eileen Collins, the first woman to command a shuttle mission. She said she and others at NASA were “shocked” by the administration’s 2010 decision to cancel Constellation, despite months of public debate about the future of the agency’s human spaceflight program by a presidential commission in 2009.

Griffin, while endorsing the concept of providing stability to NASA, said he would first prefer to undo those changes and restore plans for a human return to the moon. “Our space policy is bankrupt,” he said. “While I certainly support the stability for NASA that is the topic of this hearing today, I would not want that desire to prevent us from correcting the problems that have been created over the last seven years.”

Not every member at the hearing supported the bill. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), ranking member of the committee and one of the few Democrats who participated in the hearing, said she doubted the bill would be effective. “I regret that the legislation being discussed today, while obviously well-intentioned, unfortunately is not likely to fix the fundamental causes of instability at NASA,” she said. Instead, she called for “budgetary stability” that Congress can provide through a regular appropriations process.

Among the concerns she raised about the bill was the composition of the proposed board of directors. Eight of its 11 members would be selected by Congress, three by the majority party and one by the minority party in each house. That approach, she said, “injects partisan politics into a board that ostensibly is supposed to insulate NASA from politics.”

Witnesses also raised issues with provisions of the bill. Collins was skeptical of the 10-year term for the NASA administrator, suggesting its length might dissuade potential candidates. “I think the concept is good, but it might be too long,” she said. “It may be hard to find somebody among all the qualified people out there who initially want to commit for 10 years.”

Griffin questioned the bill’s requirement that the board develop its own budget proposal, which it would deliver to Congress separately from the official budget proposal developed by the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB). “I would wonder where they would get their information,” he said of the board’s budget.

He added, though, that approach had the benefit, in his opinion, of getting around the OMB. “Anything that can be done to ameliorate and control the influence of the OMB on the process would be welcome,” he said.

Culberson said he was open to changes to his bill. “I have welcomed suggestions or ideas on how we can modify this legislation, but I have put a lot of thought into this,” he said.

The hearing was the first action the House has taken on Culberson’s bill, which he introduced last April. The bill’s odds of passage in Congress this year are long, though, even if the House ultimately approves the bill. The Senate has taken little or no action on other NASA-related legislation, such as authorization bills, and there is limited time available in Congress in general this year because of the elections in November.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...