House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Defends NASA Reauthorization Bill

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Publication date: 
15 September 2010

“The hard reality is that the Administration has sent an unexecutable budget request to Congress, and we now have to make tough choices so that the nation can have a sustainable and balanced NASA program.”  So wrote House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) in a four-page letter responding to a letter signed by fourteen Nobel Prize winners; former senior NASA employees, including astronauts; and high-profile educators.  Their letter to Gordon centered on what they characterized as “substantially underfunded” programs in the House Science Committee’s NASA reauthorization bill, H.R. 5781.

Following months of strong bipartisan opposition from Members of Congress in both chambers to the Administration’s proposed human space flight policy, bills were written in the Senate and House to reauthorize NASA’s programs.  Somewhat surprisingly, the Senate bill, which was passed using an expedited procedure on the Senate floor earlier this summer, and a bill that was passed by the House Science Committee largely parallel the Administration’s proposal.  As expected, the two bills differ in some respects, such as the amount of money authorized for the development of commercial programs.

The August 31 letter to Gordon takes issue with the amount of money the House bill authorizes for several programs.  The letter criticizes the level of authorized funding for technology development, charging that the bill “essentially eliminates the Exploration Technology Program.”  The letter also calls for the bill to authorize the Administration’s entire request for the Commercial Crew Program, the Commercial Cargo Program, and the Commercial Reusuable Suborbital Research Program.  Adequate funding should also be restored for the Robotic Precursors Program.  Also discussed in the letter was the relationship of NASA’s technology programs to university and student research.  Finally, the letter calls for “sustaining these investments into the future,” cautioning that “a one-year increase in technology, commercial, robotic, and university investments will not be sufficient to reverse years of neglect.”  The letter is available here.

Gordon responded on September 3, with a posting on the committee’s web site explaining it was “an example of Chairman Gordon's response to a letter expressing concern about NASA's future.”  Early in this letter he writes “we must develop a NASA budget that is honest. That point is further emphasized as we look ahead to tight budgetary realities for the foreseeable future. Accordingly, tough decisions and choices are necessary. Despite that, I believe the bipartisan bill developed by our Committee is a common-sense and balanced solution to a complicated situation that will help avoid future instability for the agency.”Gordon responds to the criticism regarding the bill’s provisions regarding technology development, commercial spaceflight, and robotic precursors.  He then discusses the provisions in the bill regarding science, university and student research, education, earth science, and aeronautics as follows:

“Revitalizing University and Student Research - In addition to the technology development funding discussed earlier, the Committee's bill funds NASA's science program at a level higher than was proposed in the president's budget request. That augmented funding is provided for activities identified by the National Academies and STEM advocates as important for the development of the next generation of space scientists and engineers-namely NASA's suborbital program and NASA's Explorer program. Funding above the president's request is also provided to start to rebuild the nation's life science and physical sciences microgravity research program, which suffered significant reductions in recent years to the detriment of the university research community. In addition, the bill fully funds NASA's Education program, including funds requested for the Space Grant program. The bill also includes STEM-related policy provisions analogous to those in the America COMPETES legislation. In contrast to the August 12 letter of support sent to me and to the Ranking Member of the Committee from the Association of American Universities, an organization that I think you will agree has a profound commitment to the advancement of science and technology in America and the maintenance of a vibrant university research community, your letter fails to recognize any of the above initiatives.

“Finally, your letter makes no mention of the fact that the bill fully funds the president's budget request for Earth science and aeronautics research. You may be under the mistaken impression that such support can be taken for granted in Congress, but I can assure you that there are no ‘givens’ in the highly constrained budgetary environment we are facing at present. The Committee's decision to support the significant augmentation in Earth science and aeronautics funding requested by the president imposed constraints on funding available for the programs you mentioned in your letter. I believe the Committee's judgment was the correct one, but it had clear budgetary consequences for NASA's other accounts. If you believe that additional funding for the programs you mentioned in your letter should take precedence over these science and aeronautics funding increases provided by the Committee, please inform me of that fact so that we can take your views into account in our deliberations on the final form of the NASA Authorization bill.”

Chairman Gordon concludes his letter as follows:

“In the end, we all believe it is critical to have a fiscally responsible, sustainable, and executable program for NASA. We don't want to find ourselves in a few years in the same situation where we need a lengthy review and a commission to help rectify the fact that we've been giving NASA more mission than money. “