Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), chair of the space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, said at a Feb. 9 hearing he hoped to get a NASA authorization bill enacted this year. Credit: Senate Commerce Committee webcast

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Senators used a NASA hearing Feb. 9 to once again advocate for an authorization bill for the agency, arguing it is vital for giving the agency direction and securing funding.

Leaders of the Senate Commerce Committee and its space subcommittee lobbied for passage of a NASA authorization bill, like one included in a broader Senate competitiveness bill last year, during a hearing by the space subcommittee on agency accountability and oversight.

“We have to figure out how we’re going to play our oversight role. It’s hard to play an oversight role without getting an authorization and making sure our goals are set in that authorization,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), chair of the full committee, at the hearing.

The Senate included an authorization bill for NASA as part of the United States Innovation and Competition Act (USICA) of 2021. However, the House passed Feb. 4 an alternative bill, the America Creating Opportunities for Manufacturing, Pre-Eminence in Technology and Economic Strength (COMPETES) Act, which did not include a NASA authorization and had almost nothing about space in general.

The committee’s ranking member, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), agreed with Cantwell. “We are both here and strongly making the statement that we need a NASA reauthorization bill,” he said, adding he had “every confidence” that House and Senate negotiators, working to hammer out differences between USICA and America COMPETES, will include a NASA authorization in the final version.

“Authorizations give agencies clear congressional guidance. We look forward to working with my colleagues in the House of Representatives to send President Biden a NASA bill this Congress,” Sen. John Hickenlooper (D-Colo.), chair of the space subcommittee, said at the hearing.

Congress last passed a NASA authorization bill in early 2017, an effort billed then as providing stability for the agency during the transition to the new Trump administration. There have been several efforts since then in both the House and Senate to pass an updated NASA authorization bill, but no bill has made it through both the House and Senate.

Cantwell argued that the authorization is needed to ensure adequate funding for NASA, which is appropriated separately. “We need to get an authorization bill, and we need to have frequent authorizations — at least every five years — approved by Congress,” she said. “This notion of going through the appropriations committee without the mission, the commitment, the foresight, I would say to you is also why we haven’t been able to always get the budget we want to see, because we haven’t gotten everyone on board on the importance of this mission.”

Witnesses, including several NASA officials as well as outside experts, endorsed a NASA authorization bill. “There’s a story in the rocket business. They ask the question, ‘What makes the rocket go up?’ Funding makes the rocket go up. What makes funding go up? Bipartisan support,” said Scott Pace, former executive secretary of the National Space Council. “Steady bipartisan support that evolves and is expressed though the authorization bill is one of the things that not only gives confidence to industry, it also gives confidence to our international partners.”

The hearing did not go into detail about specific issues Congress would like to see addressed in a NASA authorization bill, although committee members touched on topics ranging from NASA’s use of industry partnerships for key projects as well as its management of the Artemis program. The latter topic included concerns about a lack of an overall program manager for Artemis, something that has been recommended by groups like the Aerospace Safety Advisory Committee.

“We do not have an Artemis program manager,” Jim Free, NASA associate administrator for exploration systems development, said at the hearing. “We’re in the process of reorganizing now and we are setting up a structure that has the accountability without that program manager name.” He didn’t elaborate on that structure.

“I believe in public private partnerships, I do believe in it. But it takes a lot for us to have oversight,” Cantwell said, which she said was a reason for a new authorization bill. “We have an oversight role as stewards of taxpayers’ money: this mission, these objectives of the mission. I just don’t see how we get that without an authorization bill.”

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...