The House Science and Technology Committee approved the NASA Authorization Act of 2008 (H.R. 6063) with only minor amendments June 4, teeing up the bill for possible passage by the full House
later in the
month. But the committee’s Republican members appear determined to use the bill to fix what they consider a flaw in U.S. energy policy.


Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.) offered the only amendment that was adopted, a so-called manager’s amendment that corrected and clarified certain sections of the bill and added two minor provisions. One of those provisions, supported by the committee’s Florida representatives, would require the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy to study the merits of establishing a commercial launch range in close proximity to a federal launch range. The other provision would establish an outreach program aimed at aiding the transfer of NASA-developed technologies to small businesses.


Gordon’s amendment passed unanimously by voice vote.


Rep. Phil Gingrey (R-Ga.) tried unsuccessfully to amend H.R. 6063 to strip or at least weaken a provision of last year’s energy policy bill, the Energy Independence and Security Act of 2007, that prohibits federal agencies from buying alternative fuels that carry a bigger carbon footprint than conventional sources.


Gingrey said NASA’s jet fuel bills have quadrupled over the last five years, topping $18 million in 2007. The Department of Defense, whose jet fuel consumption dwarfs that of NASA, expects to see its fuel bills rise by $9 billion this year.


Even though NASA is cooperating with the U.S. Air Force on the development of alternative fuels, neither agency would be permitted to put them to use if their impact on the environment – measured in terms of the amount of greenhouse gases produced – exceed that of fuels already in use.


Rep. Vern Ehlers (R-Mich.) supported Gingrey’s amendment, arguing that Section 526 of the Energy bill failed to take into consideration that energy density is more important than fuel efficiency when it comes to space and aerospace applications.


“This problem we are trying to correct here is a good example of what happens when committees that don’t understand the science or have jurisdiction over NASA pass regulations that don’t make sense,” Ehlers said.


The committee’s ranking Republican, Rep. Ralph Hall of Texas, and Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-Wis
.) also urged adoption of Gingrey’s amendment.


After the committee voted along party lines to uphold Gordon’s ruling that the energy amendment was out of order since it was not germane to H.R. 6063, Gingrey offered a compromise amendment that would empower the NASA administrator to disregard the Energy bill’s restrictions on use of alternative fuels.


Gordon again ruled the amendment was out of order and the committee voted 22 to 15 to table the measure.


The committee then approved H.R. 6063 by voice vote.


The bill authorizes Congress to spend $19.21 billion on NASA for 2009, a roughly 11 percent increase over the $17.3 billion the U.S. space agency was given for 2008. Congress, however, is not bound to fund NASA at the authorized level.


The bill also authorizes an additional $1 billion aimed at speeding development of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and its Ares 1 launcher in order to shorten the period of time the United States is without its own means of launching astronauts into space.


Additionally, the bill will add a
space shuttle flight to NASA’s manifest to launch the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer and formalize the agency’s plans to fly two loads of spare parts to the international space station before retiring the orbiter fleet
in 2010.


Gordon, one of the bill’s original co-sponsors, urged timely enactment of H.R. 6063.


“It’s important that we send a strong message to the next administration – whether it be a Democratic or Republican one – that the Congress believes that NASA is important and deserving of the nation’s support,” he said.


Gingrey, meanwhile, intends to re-introduce his amendments when H.R. 6063 reaches the floor.


“He is planning on submitting both amendments to the Rules Committee with hopes that they will be made in order that we can have a full and open debate on this issue on the House floor,” Gingrey spokesman Chris Jackson said June 5.

The Senate Commerce space and aeronautics subcommittee is due to mark up its version of the NASA authorization bill in mid-June. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the subcommittee’s chairman, has publicly praised the House version and said he intends to keep any differences in the Senate version to a minimum in order to improve the bill’s chances for passage this year.

Comments: bberger@space.com