House Passes Bipartisan Bill Setting NASA Policy

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Publication date: 
12 February 2015
Number: 
25

“I know many of our colleagues agree that American leadership in space is both a matter of national pride, but also of national security.  Yet over the last decade, the human exploration program at NASA has been plagued with instability from constantly changing requirements, budgets, and missions.    We cannot continue changing our program of record every time there is a new President. We must be consistent in our commitment to human exploration.  As identified by numerous reports and committees, NASA needs Congress to provide consistency of purpose. That commitment is reflected in today's bipartisan bill, and I am confident it will continue into the future.”  So stated Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS) about a bill the House of Representatives passed on Tuesday that would establish important policy for the space agency if enacted into law.

Palazzo is the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Space of the Science, Space and Technology Committee.  The bill the House passed, H.R. 810, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2015, was almost identical to legislation passed by the chamber last year by a vote of 401-2.  A counterpart bill was never brought before the Senate.  Tuesday’s House voice vote on passage used a legislative mechanism reserved for noncontroversial bills.

Bipartisanship was mentioned frequently by Members speaking in support of this bill.  That was not always true as this legislation was developed; in July 2013 the five hour markup session of the bill was characterized by deep divisions about the bill’s (permission to spend) authorization levels for NASA.   The Science Committee avoided this impasse in H.R. 810 by working around it, setting the authorization level for only the current year, FY 2015, and making this level the same as what NASA received in the FY 2015 appropriations bill. 

Only two pages of the 128-page bill center on funding.  The remainder of the bill sets program and policy direction for NASA in the areas of human space flight, science (including astrophysics, planetary science, heliophysics, and earth science), aeronautics, space technology, education, and twenty-seven separate policy provisions.  The bill language is straight-forward and available here and in an easy-to-access HTML/XML format.   The Science Committee also provided a one-page summary of the bill’s major provisions. 

In their remarks, Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), Ranking Member of the Space Subcommittee; Lamar Smith (R-TX), Chairman of the Science Committee; Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), Ranking Member of the Science Committee; and other committee members stressed the bipartisan process that was used in writing the final version of the bills passed this week and in 2014.  None suggested that the bill was perfect as it was written, but all recognized the importance of Congress setting forth guidance for NASA and its programs.  Selections from this very extensive guidance include:

Human Space Flight:

Space Exploration Policy: “Human exploration deeper into the Solar System shall be a core mission of the [NASA] Administration. It is the policy of the United States that the goal of the Administration’s exploration program shall be to successfully conduct a crewed mission to the surface of Mars to begin human exploration of that planet. The use of the surface of the Moon, cis-lunar space, near-Earth asteroids, Lagrangian points, and Martian moons may be pursued provided they are properly incorporated into the Human Exploration Roadmap . . . .”

International Participation: “The President should invite the United States partners in the International Space Station program and other nations, as appropriate, to participate in an international initiative under the leadership of the United States to achieve the goal of successfully conducting a crewed mission to the surface of Mars.”

Space Launch System: “Given the critical importance of a heavy-lift launch vehicle and crewed spacecraft to enable the achievement of the goal established in . . . this Act, as well as the accomplishment of intermediate exploration milestones and the provision of a backup capability to transfer crew and cargo to the International Space Station, the Administrator shall make the expeditious development, test, and achievement of operational readiness of the Space Launch System and the Orion crew capsule the highest priority of the exploration program.”

International Space Station: “The International Space Station shall be utilized to the maximum extent practicable for the development of capabilities and technologies needed for the future of human exploration beyond low-Earth orbit and shall be considered in the development of the Human Exploration Roadmap . . . .”

“Reliance on foreign carriers for crew transfer [to the Space Station] is unacceptable, and the Nation’s human space flight program must acquire the capability to launch United States astronauts on United States rockets from United States soil as soon as is safe and practically possible, whether on Government-owned and operated space transportation systems or privately owned systems that have been certified for flight by the appropriate Federal agencies.”

Science:

“Overall science portfolio—sense of the Congress: Congress reaffirms its sense, expressed in the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2010, that a balanced and adequately funded set of activities, consisting of research and analysis grants programs, technology development, small, medium, and large space missions, and suborbital research activities, contributes to a robust and productive science program and serves as a catalyst for innovation and discovery.”

Decadal surveys.  In proposing the funding of programs and activities for the [NASA] Administration for each fiscal year, the Administrator shall, to the greatest extent practicable, follow guidance provided in the current decadal surveys from the National Academies’ Space Studies Board.”

James Webb Space Telescope: “the on-time and on-budget delivery of the James Webb Space Telescope is a high congressional priority”

Planetary Science: “at least one Flagship-class mission per decadal survey period, including a Europa mission with a goal of launching by 2021.”

Earth Science: “The Administrator shall continue to carry out a balanced Earth science program that includes Earth science research, Earth systematic missions, competitive Venture class missions, other missions and data analysis, mission operations, technology development, and applied sciences, consistent with the recommendations and priorities established in the National Academies’ Earth Science Decadal Survey.”

Policy Provisions:

Asteroid Retrieval Mission:  “Asteroid retrieval report.—Not later than 180 days after the date of enactment of this Act, the Administrator shall provide to the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation of the Senate a report on the proposed Asteroid Retrieval Mission. Such report shall include— (1) a detailed budget profile, including cost estimates for the development of all necessary technologies and spacecraft required for the mission; (2) a detailed technical plan that includes milestones and a specific schedule; (3) a description of the technologies and capabilities anticipated to be gained from the proposed mission that will enable future human missions to Mars which could not be gained by lunar missions; (4) a description of the technologies and capabilities anticipated to be gained from the proposed mission that will enable future planetary defense missions, against impact threats from near-Earth objects equal to or greater than 140 meters in diameter, which could not be gained by robotic missions; and (5) a complete assessment by the Small Bodies Assessment Group and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Advisory Council of how the proposed mission is in the strategic interests of the United States in space exploration.”

Human Mars Flyby: “Mars flyby report.  Not later than 60 days after the date of enactment of this Act, an independent, private systems engineering and technical assistance organization contracted by the Human Exploration Operations Mission Directorate shall transmit to the Administrator, the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology of the House of Representatives, and the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation of the Senate a report analyzing the proposal for a Mars Flyby human spaceflight mission to be launched in 2021. Such report shall include—(1) a technical development, test, fielding, and operations plan using the Space Launch System and other systems to successfully mount a Mars Flyby mission by 2021; (2) a description of the benefits in scientific knowledge and technologies demonstrated by a Mars Flyby mission to be launched in 2021 suitable for future Mars missions; and (3) an annual budget profile, including cost estimates, for the development test, fielding, and operations plan to carry out a Mars Flyby mission through 2021 and comparison of that budget profile to the 5-year budget profile contained in the President’s Budget request for fiscal year 2016. (c) Assessment.—Not later than 60 days after transmittal of the report specified in subsection (b), the Administrator shall transmit to the Committee on Science, Space, and Technology of the House of Representatives and the Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation of the Senate an assessment by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Advisory Council of whether the proposal for a Mars Flyby Mission to be launched in 2021 is in the strategic interests of the United States in space exploration.”