New NASA Authorization Bill Awaiting President’s Signature

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Publication date: 
5 October 2010

What seemed, at best, a long shot eight months ago is close to becoming law.  On September 29, facing unyielding time pressures, the House of Representatives passed the Senate’s version of a NASA authorization act, and sent it to the President.  With President Obama’s signature, major components of his space policy will become law.

Reaction to NASA’s February release of its FY 2011 budget request was met by shock, consternation, and in many cases, outright hostility.  No Member of Congress publically embraced the Administration’s proposal to terminate the Constellation Program and utilize yet-to-be-developed commercial services for transportation to the space station.  Administration witnesses in House and Senate authorization and appropriations committee hearings encountered very tough questioning when explaining the Administration’s proposed policy.  Opinion began to shift after President Obama revised his policy initiative.  Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) soon signaled his general agreement with the revised policy, which later resulted in the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation passing without dissent S. 3729, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Act of 2010.  The full Senate acted likewise, passing the bill on August 5 with almost no discussion.  The bill authorizes - but does not appropriate - a total of $58.4 billion for NASA for Fiscal Years 2011, 2012, and 2013.

The House Science and Technology Committee passed H.R. 5781, its version of an authorization bill after hours of debate and votes on an initial thirty amendments during a mark up session in July.  This legislation was never considered by the full House.

Hours of meetings between representatives and senators and their staffs failed to settle the differences between the two bills.  On September 23, House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) released what he called bipartisan compromise language.  The new provisions authorized more money for robotic precursors than the original House bill and a much higher authorization level for commercial cargo and crew development activities.  Funding was also authorized for a “Launch on Need” shuttle flight in FY 2011.  The authorization level for Exploration programs was reduced by about a billion dollars.  Gordon commented:

“This is House compromise language, with bipartisan support. It reflects months of discussions and input from many Members.  As a result, we believe we have a bill that both builds on and improves on H.R. 5781, the NASA Authorization Act that was marked up by the Science and Technology Committee earlier this year.  Moreover, we believe this compromise helps move the discussion about the future of NASA closer to a final product.”

It was not to be.  Four days later - on September 27 - Gordon stated:

“It has become clear that there is not time remaining to pass a Compromise bill through the House and the Senate.  For the sake of providing certainty, stability, and clarity to the NASA workforce and larger space community, I felt it was better to consider a flawed bill than no bill at all as the new fiscal year begins.  I will continue to advocate to the Appropriators for the provisions in the Compromise language.”

In this same release, Gordon criticized the Senate bill for not clarifying where $500 million for the additional shuttle flight would come from, what he characterized as “overly prescriptive” language regarding the next rocket, and the lack of a timeline for a government backup capability for transportation to the shuttle.

The September 29 debate in the House on S. 3729 resulted in seven pages of spoken and submitted remarks in the Congressional Record.  Gordon and the committee’s senior Republican, Ranking Member Ralph Hall (R-TX) described their efforts to reach a compromise with the Senate, with Hall telling his colleagues, “while the bill before us today is far from perfect, it offers clear direction to an agency that is floundering and sets us on the path toward maintaining America’s leadership in space.”

Most sentiment on the House floor supported passage of the Senate bill, although reservations were expressed about “the process” and certain aspects of the legislation.  Members expressed support for the bill’s requirement that NASA develop a heavy-lift launch vehicle, the further development of commercial cargo and crew capabilities, a continued authorization for work on a crew capsule, the possibility of an extra shuttle flight, and the use of the space station through 2020.  The Senate bill was praised for saving jobs, and was described by Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) as “a workable compromise for those of us in the committee who had different views on what direction America’s space program should go.”Some representatives warned that the House’s failure to pass the Senate bill would result in the civilian space program being shut down by the Administration.

Clear in her “strong opposition to S. 3729" was Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), chair of the House Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee, who called the Senate legislation “a bad bill.”  Among her points were how the bill lacked “serious budgetary discipline,” its potential to “bust the budget for the shuttle” and how that could jeopardize other programs, the prescriptive Senate rocket language, and the reduced authorization levels for STEM education.  Giffords heavily criticized how the House was voting on the Senate bill without the ability to offer amendments.

A voice vote was called, it and it was ruled that the bill had passed.  At that point Giffords rose and said “Mr. Speaker, on that I demand the yeas and nays.”  The bill passed on a recorded vote of 304 yes to 118 no.

In commenting on the House passage of the Senate bill, Chairman Gordon stated:

“I see today’s floor consideration to be only one more step in crafting a sustainable, affordable, and productive future path for NASA, and to ensuring stability and clarity to the NASA workforce and larger space community. To that end, I plan to continue to advocate to the Appropriators for the provisions in the Compromise language we released last week. I believe that the Compromise language provides a solid basis for NASA’s future activities.

“It has been a difficult year for NASA and its civil servants and contractor workforce. We are in tough economic times, and sacrifices will have to be made. However, NASA is an investment in our future, and in the future of our children. The United States has been a global leader in space exploration and technology and innovation, and our efforts over the remainder of this Congress should be aimed at preserving that leadership position.”

Ranking Member Hall commented:

“While I am not completely satisfied with the Senate bill, I am very pleased it passed.  Congress is obligated to provide clear policy direction to NASA to keep vital agency programs funded and on track.  While I preferred the compromise language offered by Chairman Gordon, I am pleased that we were at least able to pass a bill.

“This Administration’s misguided plan for human spaceflight would put NASA on a dangerous and unproven path.  It is essential for Congress to weigh-in and pass a bill to counter these policy objectives; otherwise we would essentially be rubberstamping the White House plan.

“S. 3729 keeps important programs funded, directs NASA to develop a multipurpose crew vehicle and a new heavy-lift launch system, and allows commercial space companies to prove their capabilities.  Without a bill, the jobs of a world class NASA workforce and thousands of highly-skilled private contractors who support human space flight would have been lost.”

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden also released a statement, sections of which follow:

“We thank the Congress for their thoughtful deliberations about NASA's future over the past months. Both the House and the Senate provided insight, ideas and direction that were truly exemplary of the democratic process. It is clear that our space program inspires passion and dedication across party lines, and for that we are truly thankful.

“This important vote today in the House of Representatives on a comprehensive NASA authorization charts a vital new future for the course of human space exploration. We are grateful that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2010 received strong support in the House after its clearance in the Senate, and can now be sent on to the President for his signature.

“The President has laid out an ambitious new plan for NASA that pioneers new frontiers of innovation and discovery. The plan invests more in NASA; extends the life of the International Space Station; launches a commercial space transportation industry; fosters the development of path-breaking technologies; and helps create thousands of new jobs. Passage of this bill represents an important step forward towards helping us achieve the key goals set by the President.”

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