Sen. Ted Cruz
U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas). Credit: Elliott School of International Affairs

WASHINGTON — The Senate Commerce Committee approved a short-term NASA authorization bill Sept. 21 that is intended to provide short-term stability to NASA during the upcoming presidential transition but will cast new scrutiny on one major agency program.

The committee, during a markup session that included several other bills, unanimously approved the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2016, legislation formally introduced last week by a bipartisan group of senators. The bill authorizes $19.5 billion for NASA in fiscal year 2017 and includes a number of requirements for studies and reports about agency programs.

The bill’s sponsors argued the legislation is necessary to provide continuity for NASA and its major programs during the upcoming presidential transition. “The last NASA reauthorization act to pass Congress was in 2010,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), lead sponsor of the bill. “And we have seen in the past the importance of stability and predictability in NASA and space exploration: that whenever one has a change in administration, we have seen the chaos that can be caused by the cancellation of major programs.”

While the bill does provide continuity for many of NASA’s exploration-related programs, such as explicitly calling for continued development of the Space Launch System and the Orion spacecraft, it does raise questions about another agency initiative. The bill requires NASA to study alternatives to its controversial Asteroid Redirect Mission that could also demonstrate key technologies for Mars exploration but be more “cost effective and scientifically beneficial.”

Senators approved several amendments to the bill during the session. One, introduced by Sen. Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), addresses NASA’s efforts in developing and using satellite servicing technology. It specifically directs NASA to design future spacecraft “in a manner that allows for servicing in order to maximize operational longevity and affordability.”

That amendment is supported by many in industry, who see the requirement to make NASA satellites compatible for servicing as a means of helping provide an initial market for commercial satellite servicing systems.

“Satellite servicing is a critical capability not only for NASA but for commercial activities and national security interests as well,” said Mike Gold, vice president of Washington operations and business development for Space Systems Loral, in a Sept. 21 interview. “The companies and countries that can refuel, restore, and refurbish their satellites will have a substantial advantage in the global space arena.”

Another amendment, introduced by Sens. Cruz and Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the committee’s ranking member, would allow NASA to indemnify companies providing launch or reentry services for the agency for third-party damages or injuries above a level the companies must insure against. The language is similar to the indemnification provided for commercial launches licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration.

The bill’s supporters hope to get the bill through the Senate and then passed by the House in the limited time remaining this year. “This senator’s intention is to work with our appropriators to get the best possible outcome we can for NASA in 2017, and to work next year on a comprehensive, multi-year NASA authorization bill,” Nelson said.

Another bill the committee approved in the same markup session was the Inspiring Next Space Pioneers, Innovators, Researchers, and Explorers (INSPIRE) Women Act, a NASA education bill passed in the House in March. The bill directs NASA to develop a plan to use current and former astronauts, engineers and scientists to mentor female students to pursue science and engineering careers.

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...