WASHINGTON — A small but important pile of NASA-related bills awaits U.S. lawmakers when they return to Washington Sept. 8 for a three-week session few expect to produce much – if any – meaningful legislation.
Topping the list of unfinished business is the Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Act, a spending bill that includes funding for NASA and several other federal agencies for the 2009 budget year, which begins Oct. 1. None of the 12 annual appropriations bills that fund the
government have made it through Congress this year. And that is not expected to change much. With lawmakers eager to adjourn and hit the campaign trail in advance of the November elections, no one in official Washington expects any spending bills to reach the desk of President George W. Bush this year, except for perhaps the defense budget and a so-called continuing resolution that would keep the government running for at least part of 2009 at 2008 spending levels.
NASA officials anticipate having to make due with a flat 2009 budget rather than the 3 percent increase included in the Commerce, Justice, Science spending bills that cleared the House and Senate appropriations committees in June, only to stall. NASA Administrator Mike Griffin has warned Congress that a continuing resolution that stretches beyond the first six months of the new year would result in widespread program delays and make it that much harder for NASA to field the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and its Ares 1 launcher in March 2015 as promised.
NASA also needs Congress to pass the International Space Station Payments Act of 2008 (S. 3103) before it can place a new order for the Russian Soyuz vehicles the United States will need to transport astronauts to the space station between the end of 2011 and the introduction of Orion or a commercial alternative.
The Iran-North Korea-Syria Nonproliferation Act (INKSNA) bars NASA from paying
for space station-related goods and services so long as the White House remains unable to certify that
has ceased helping
acquire missiles and other advanced weapons. NASA has been operating since 2005 under an INKSNA waiver that expires
Dec. 31, 2010
NASA has been prodding lawmakers to renew the waiver before adjourning in order to give NASA time to conclude a new Soyuz deal in early 2009.
A key Democratic congressional staffer told Coalition for Space Exploration members in August that most lawmakers did not share NASA’s sense of urgency.
Bill Adkins, a Washington-based aerospace consultant and former Republican staff director for the House Science space and aeronautics subcommittee, also does not see Congress granting NASA any INKSNA relief this year in light of
‘s military action against neighboring
“The prospects for getting INKSNA done this year have gone from 50/50 last month to a long shot,” Adkins said. “The problem is that NASA really does need Congress to amend INKSNA. The irony is that the longer Congress waits to fix INKSNA the greater leverage
will have in negotiating higher prices for Soyuz vehicles.” Adkins does not hold out much hope for a NASA authorization bill this year either, even though the legislation, which sets spending guidance but provides no actual money, has strong support.
“There doesn’t seem to be a way forward for the NASA authorization bill this year,” Adkins said. “Both the House and Senate Commerce Committee passed their bills with strong support, but it is bottled up in the Senate where Sen. [Tom] Coburn (R-Okla.) has blocked any legislation that proposes to increase funding above the request, which the NASA bill does by more than $2 billion.”
Congressional aides working on the legislation, however, have not given up on getting the bill to Bush’s desk this year. One aide told Space News that House and Senate staffers already have worked out the differences between their competing bills and that final legislation could move swiftly once any remaining Senate holds are cleared.
If the bill is enacted this year, it would send NASA into the new presidential administration with a fresh congressional endorsement of its plan to complete the space station, retire the space shuttle and field new spacecraft designed for human missions beyond low Earth orbit. Enactment also would put further pressure on NASA to conduct at least one extra shuttle mission to deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) to the space station. The White House has said it opposes the AMS provision since flying the mission would cost NASA some $300 million it does not have.