House committee approved revised NASA authorization bill

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COLORADO SPRINGS — The House Science Committee, after some unusual last-minute drama, approved a NASA authorization bill April 17 that offers more support to the agency’s Earth science program.

The committee voted 26–7 to approve H.R. 5503, the NASA Authorization Act of 2018. The bill approved by the committee was an amended version of the one introduced April 13, authorizing funding for fiscal years 2018 and 2019 and including a number of policy provisions.

The markup of the bill, though, was interrupted by a recess — originally planned to last just five minutes but extending for more than a half-hour — where Republican and Democratic leaders of the committee privately discussed changes in the bill. When the markup session resumed, the committee’s ranking member, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), expressed her displeasure on how the “deeply flawed” bill was developed.

Johnson, in her remarks, criticized the content of the bill, including both Earth science cuts and its endorsement of administration’s space exploration plans without any hearings by the committee to discuss them. She also noted language in the bill that authorizes funding to search for “technosignatures” of alien life. “The majority slashes funding for programs that help humans here on Earth, and instead prioritizes spending money to find space aliens,” she said.

Her criticism extended to how the bill was developed. “As problematic as the substance of the bill is, the process that brought us here today is just as problematic,” she said. Drafting of the bill started a couple weeks ago, she said, and the committee’s Republican staff provided a “significantly different” version of the bill from earlier drafts on April 12.

“It came with an ultimatum: in essence, if I didn’t agree to support the bill as written, then the chairman would notice the markup on April 13th with a different, punitive version of the bill,” she said, claiming that was, in fact, what happened. “I really don’t think vindictiveness is a good basis for legislating.”

Committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) said that Republican and Democratic staff were discussing the bill weeks ago, including a draft provided April 2. The markup was postponed from April 12, he said, to allow talks on the bill to continue. “The majority staff, in my view, has acted in good faith and has been in discussions on the bill with the minority on a regular basis,” he said.

“I realize the minority has not had as much time as they would have liked,” he said. “On the other hand, we have complied with all requirements, legislative and otherwise.”

Shortly after those discussions, the committee took up an amendment by Rep. Ed Perlmutter (D-Colo.) that added $471 million to Earth science authorized funding in 2019, bringing it up to the same level as 2018. “This was not an easy amendment for the majority to swallow,” Smith said, but said he would support it in order to “increase the prospects of this NASA bill going forward on the floor.” The committee approved the amendment on a 27–5 vote.

The committee also passed several other amendments, including a manager’s amendment by space subcommittee chairman Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), which he said included some feedback from the bill received after its April 13 introduction. That amendment included language directing NASA to build a second mobile launch platform for the Space Launch System, which was funded in the 2018 omnibus appropriations bill, and a second Interim Cryogenic Propulsion Stage for the SLS.

The manager’s amendment also replaced language in the original bill directing NASA to use commercial space products and in-space infrastructure with language instead requiring NASA to prepare a report on the potential use of such commercial capabilities.

Other amendments approved by the committee included provisions on security management for foreign national access to NASA facilities, federal-state partnerships involving NASA, a reaffirmation of the risks of orbital debris, a cost analysis of using highly enriched uranium for space applications and language prioritizing human missions to Mars by 2033.