WASHINGTON — Having missed perhaps their best shot at renewing a commercial launch liability shield that expires this month and extending NASA’s authority to pay Russia for Soyuz rides to the international space station, U.S. Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) introduced a standalone space bill Dec. 5 that stands little chance of being enacted in the closing days of the 112th Congress.
Hutchison and Nelson filed their nine-page bill, the Space Exploration Sustainability Act (S. 3661), the day after the Senate approved the 2013 National Defense Authorization Act (S. 3254) without considering amendments Hutchison and Nelson had offered separately to address launch liability and longstanding restrictions on NASA’s ability to buy space station-related goods and services from Russia.
A former congressional aide said the bill has little chance of being enacted before the 112th Congress adjourns. Any pending legislation not enacted before the 113th Congress convenes Jan. 3 would have to be reintroduced.
“The Nelson-Hutchison bill, in its current form, is highly unlikely to make it all the way through the process,” the former congressional aide said. “[E]ven if it passes the Senate, I think the [House] Foreign Affairs Committee will have serious problems with the INKSNA piece.” Since 2000, NASA has been granted a series of waivers to a provision in the Iran, North Korea, Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSNA) that would otherwise bar the space agency from paying Russia to fly U.S. astronauts, experiments and supplies to the international space station. NASA has lessened its dependence on Russia’s Progress supply ships by contracting with Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) and Orbital Sciences Corp. to ferry cargo to the space station. The agency is pursuing a similar course for astronaut transportation, spending over $1 billion for the next couple of years to help SpaceX, Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corp. to develop U.S. alternatives to Russia’s three-person Soyuz capsules. However, NASA expects to keep buying Soyuz rides from Russia — at $65 million per seat, or more — beyond July 1, 2016, when its current INKSNA waiver expires.
Hutchison and Nelson’s bill would permanently exempt Soyuz and Progress flights from the INKSNA restrictions by rewording the law so that it only bars NASA from paying Russia for space station-related goods and services that Russia had pledged to provide at its own expense.
The main problem with Hutchison and Nelson’s proposed remedy, the former congressional aide said, is that it “fixes the space pieces now and forever, but does nothing for the nonproliferation pieces.”
Less controversially, Hutchison and Nelson’s bill would extend through 2014 the U.S. government’s authority to indemnify launch service companies from third-party damage claims that exceed $500 million. The current authority expires Dec. 31. The U.S. House of Representatives approved a two-year extension in November.
In addition to the INKSNA and launch indemnification provisions, Hutchison and Nelson’s bill includes language meant to ensure that NASA adequately funds its Space Launch System, Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle, and Commercial Crew and Cargo programs without robbing one to pay for another.
Lastly, the bill calls NASA to submit a report to Congress within 120 days of enactment describing how the agency’s two-pronged human spaceflight program could be leveraged to establish a human presence beyond Earth orbit “through the robust utilization of cis-lunar space.”
The administrator would also have to say how human activity in cis-lunar space — the general vicinity of Earth’s Moon — could enable crewed missions to the lunar surface, asteroids, Mars and its moons, and “other destinations of interest for future human exploration.”
In addition, the report would have to address the economic, scientific and technical merits of NASA activity in cis-lunar space, and identify ways for international collaborators and commercial U.S. companies to contribute to cis-lunar missions. Finally, the administrator’s report would have to discuss “commercial ventures that result from an expanded and persistent human presence in cis-lunar space.”
NASA has been studying crewed missions to cis-lunar space for years, focusing particularly on so-called lunar Lagrange points. At Lagrange points, the gravitational forces of nearby bodies effectively cancel one another out, allowing a spacecraft — such as a crewed space station — to orbit at an otherwise empty point in space.
Hutchison and Nelson filed their bill the same day the National Research Council released a congressionally mandated report that concluded NASA’s current portfolio of missions was unaffordable given the agency’s current budget.
If the bill Hutchison and Nelson filed Dec. 5 is not enacted by the end of the month, it will have to be reintroduced in the 113th Congress, which convenes in January. Hutchison, who has been a fierce advocate for NASA in general and the agency’s Houston-based Johnson Space Center in particular, did not run for re-election in November and is ending her 24-year Senate career come January.