House members seek to bolster commercial space offices in appropriations bill

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WASHINGTON — The full House is unlikely to make major changes in NASA funding when it takes up an appropriations bill this week, but members will seek changes for two other agencies involved in space issues.

The House is scheduled to start debate no earlier than June 19 on a “minibus” combining five separate appropriations bills previously approved by the House Appropriations Committee. Among those bills is the Commerce, Justice and Science (CJS) bill, which funds NASA, as well as the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development bill, which funds the Federal Aviation Administration.

The House Rules Committee will meet June 18 to adopt the rule by which the minibus will be considered by the House, as well as determine which amendments submitted by members will be included for debate.

Of the more than 150 amendments submitted for the CJS portion of the minibus, only a handful deal with NASA. Those amendments are relatively minor, seeking modest adjustments for spending in areas such as education or space technology. No amendments involve the $1.6 billion budget amendment submitted by the White House in May to support the Artemis program to return humans to the moon by 2024.

One amendment, though, would address the Office of Space Commerce within NOAA. The amendment, submitted by Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), ranking member of the House space subcommittee, would transfer $3.6 million from NOAA’s Operations, Research, and Facilities account to the Department of Commerce management account.

That transfer, according to the summary of the amendment, would “facilitate the transfer of the Office of Space Commerce and the Office of Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs back to where they are authorized by statute, thereby advancing U.S. leadership in space commerce and commercial remote sensing.”

The Commerce Department, in its fiscal year 2020 budget request, sought to combine the two offices and move them from NOAA to the office of the Secretary of Commerce, part of an overall $10 million request for the office. The House bill, though, retained the two offices as separate entities within NOAA, funding each at $1.8 million.

Earlier this month, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross complained about the House’s decision not to adopt the proposed changes in the office’s location and budget. “We are disappointed with the recent budget mark by the House Appropriations Committee,” he said at a June 4 meeting of the Advisory Committee on Commercial Remote Sensing here.

“The funding level proposed fails to recognize the increasing importance of space commerce in the economy, and the need for a strong advocate for the commercial space industry in the federal government,” he continued. “We hope for a better result as the budget gets finalized.”

Another amendment, this one to the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development part of the bill, would add $8.089 million to the budget of the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. The sponsor of the amendment, Rep. Ross Spano (R-Fla.), explained that the additional funding, transferred from the FAA’s research, engineering and development account, would fund the office at its authorized level for fiscal year 2020.

The White House, in its fiscal year 2020 budget request, sought nearly $25.6 million for the office. The House bill instead provides $24.949 million, the same amount as in the final fiscal year 2019 appropriations bill. An FAA authorization bill enacted last October, though, authorized $33.038 million for the office in 2020.

Budget and workforce have long been challenges for the office, which has only about 100 full-time employees and is responsible for the licensing of commercial launches and reentries. Those concerns have grown as the number of commercial launches has increased, providing an impetus to both streamlining launch regulations and a planned reorganization of the office.

The Government Accountability Office, in a May 23 report, recommended that the Office of Commercial Space Transportation, also known as AST, better manage its workforce needs, including long-term projections of staffing requirements, to deal with increased launch and reentry activity.

“AST’s workforce plan states that AST needs additional staff in nearly all areas,” the report concluded. “However, current budget and long-term fiscal pressures heighten the need for agencies to strategically manage their workforce, a process that includes making strategic decisions about how and where to prioritize limited resources.”