WASHINGTON — U.S. President Barack Obama on Oct. 11 signed into law a three-year NASA authorization bill setting a new course for American human spaceflight.
Hours before Obama put his signature on the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 (S. 3729), top NASA officials and U.S. lawmakers told reporters they welcomed the bill’s enactment but warned partisan pushback could threaten funding for the $58 billion measure when Congress reconvenes following mid-term elections in November.
During a NASA-hosted conference call with reporters Oct. 11, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden described the authorization bill as an important step in executing the president’s ambitious plan for NASA.
“With this direction we will extend operations of the international space station through at least 2020,” he said in opening remarks during the conference call. “We will also foster and facilitate a growing commercial space transportation industry that will allow NASA to focus our efforts on executing direction in the act to start work on a heavy-lift architecture to take astronauts beyond low Earth orbit and to develop a multipurpose crew vehicle for use with our new space launch systems.”
Bolden welcomed congressional support for the authorization bill but added, “There’s still a long way to go as we turn our attention to the 2011 appropriations process.”
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Other officials on the call included NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Rep. Suzanne Kosmas (D-Fla.) and former astronaut Sally Ride, who served on a blue-ribbon panel that reviewed NASA’s human spaceflight goals last year.
Nelson said he is pleased that the Senate Appropriations Committee approved a draft 2011 spending bill in July that largely mirrors funding levels outlined in his bill. But he warned that Senate Republicans concerned with deficit spending could obstruct efforts during the upcoming lame-duck session to pass a broader appropriations measure that fully funds the $19 billion authorized for NASA next year.
“It’s going to be a tough session because of the need to cut back on spending with regard to the federal deficit,” Nelson said. “But I believe that there’s some hope for NASA’s funding because we got unanimous support from all the appropriations committee members for the NASA budget in the Senate Appropriations bill that appropriated almost identically pursuant to what the president is signing into law today.”
Later, during a question-and-answer session for which Bolden was not present, Nelson said he would seek bipartisan support for funding the authorization bill, which he said anticipates $11.5 billion over six years to fund a new heavy-lift launch vehicle and authorizes an additional space shuttle mission next year.
“I hasten to add, however, that there are senators, namely Sen. [Jim] DeMint of South Carolina and Sen. [Tom] Coburn of Oklahoma, that are insisting that all appropriations go back to the 2008 level,” Nelson said. “That of course would be devastating to NASA if we had to do that, but that is the lay of the land as we go into the lame-duck session, which will be the middle of November.”
NASA’s enacted 2008 budget was $17.6 billion, or roughly 7 percent below the agency’s 2011 budget.