Industry pushes for NASA reauthorization

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WASHINGTON — As House and Senate conferees begin work to reconcile competitiveness bills, industry groups are pushing Congress to either include a NASA authorization bill in that legislation or pass a standalone bill.

A conference committee that includes more than 100 members of the House and Senate met for the first time May 12 to discuss reconciling the Senate’s United States Innovation and Competition Act (USICA) with the House’s America Creating Opportunities for Manufacturing Pre-Eminence in Technology and Economic Strength (COMPETES) Act. Both are broad-ranging competitiveness bills, but with differences that conferees will seek to hammer out in the coming weeks.

Among the differences is that USICA includes a NASA authorization act, whose provisions include language authorizing NASA to select a second company for its Human Landing System program. Senators soundly defeated an effort by Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) May 4 to instruct conferees to strip that provision from the final bill. The House’s America COMPETES Act does not include a NASA authorization.

In opening remarks at the May 12 conference committee meeting, senators emphasized the importance of including a NASA authorization in the final bill.

“Over the past several years, I have worked to ensure NASA missions have continued to progress forward without a NASA authorization,” said Sen. Jerry Moran (R-Kan.), ranking member of the appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA. “However, when you can present a bipartisan authorization followed up with the funding of programs, it sends a strong signal to the agency, industry and our global partners that we remain committed in accomplishing our stated missions.”

House members, though, suggested they were not willing to simply accept the Senate’s NASA authorization language. “This highlights the need for us to get a NASA authorization done,” said Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), ranking member of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, after discussing concerns about China “setting the rules” in space. “However, House priorities must be reflected in that final bill.”

There is interest in passing some kind of NASA authorization in the House. “Is it good to have an authorization? Absolutely. It provides the agency, stakeholders and the public a common understanding of NASA’s goals and a reaffirmation of them,” said Tom Hammond, a member of the House space subcommittee staff, during a May 17 panel discussion at the Humans to Mars Summit.

NASA does not require annual reauthorizations, unlike the Defense Department, he noted, but added it’s been five years since the last NASA authorization act. “I think NASA would benefit from a reauthorization right now,” he said. “Everyone I’ve talked with on Capitol Hill is interested doing an authorization to provide that continuity and reaffirmation.”

Industry groups are also pushing for a NASA reauthorization of some kind. In a May 18 letter, a dozen groups, including the Aerospace Industries Association, Coalition for Deep Space Exploration and Satellite Industry Association, called on Congress to pass a NASA authorization bill.

The groups mentioned various developments since the last NASA authorization in 2017, from the Artemis program to Mars exploration, that warrant a new bill. “A new authorization will provide clear bipartisan direction to build from these developments and set the stage for the next decade of accomplishments,” the letter states.

The letter doesn’t advocate for any specific provisions in a bill because individual groups have different priorities, it states, nor does it take a stance on whether to include a NASA authorization in the final version of the bill that emerges from the conference committee or as a standalone bill. However, the letter states, “all agree a new NASA Authorization is long overdue.”

In the meantime, NASA policy is shaped by annual appropriations bills. “Budget is policy and appropriations is policy,” said Jean Toal Eisen, staff director of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s commerce, justice and science subcommittee, which funds NASA, at the Humans to Mars Summit. “To the extent that we have a roadmap from the authorizers, we also need the appropriations resources to meet that roadmap to get and maintain momentum.”

She said the agency was at an “interesting point” given recent achievements and upcoming milestones like the Artemis 1 launch later this year, creating bipartisan support for NASA’s robotic and human exploration plans. “I do think there is a policy momentum that is shared with the authorizers and is shared across the House and Senate.”