Senate Committee Approves NASA Reauthorization Bill

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Publication date: 
21 July 2010

“We have reached consensus” declared Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL).  Against what seemed to be overwhelming odds, the White House and a key Senate committee agreed last week on the major provisions of a NASA reauthorization bill reflecting many of the essential components of the Administration’s new space exploration policy.

Members of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation expressed uniform support for the bill in last week’s markup of the $58.4 billion legislation.  Committee Chairman John Rockefeller (D-WV) spoke of many months of deliberations by senators and staff to move from initial tension and disagreement to what he called “an innovative and forward-looking plan – a plan to refocus and reinvigorate the agency in a smart, fiscally responsible way.”Committee Ranking Minority Member Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) who had expressed great misgivings at several hearings earlier this year exclaimed “I am so pleased with the bill that is coming out of our committee today.”  Expressing her gratitude to Rockefeller and Nelson, she said that takeoffs had been made to achieve what she characterized as a proper balance between the positions of the Administration and Congress.  Indicative of Hutchison’s support was her declaration - “I move these agenda items” - after which the committee approved the bill by voice vote without a single dissent.

The bill is described in a committee document as “largely in-line” with the Administration’s FY 2011 NASA budget request.  Under the request, science funding would increase approximately 12 percent and exploration funding by 13.8 percent.  The committee states that the legislation includes authorizations for “full funding of aeronautics, Earth and space science, and education as proposed by the President.”  The bill also authorizes NASA for FY 2012 and 2013.

The committee explains that the bill will “continue to support commercial cargo development and provide additional funds to meet launch infrastructure requirements and accelerate development activity.”It will also “expand the Commercial Crew Development Program in 2011 for concept development and supporting activities, while requiring a number of studies to ensure effective oversight of the potential initiation of a commercial crew capability procurement program no earlier than 2012.”  The committee’s support of the utilization of commercial services for transportation to the space station was a major achievement for the Administration.  This was one of the approaches described in the Augustine committee’s report “Seeking a Human Space Flight Program Worthy of a Great Nation.”

Helping to gain the committee’s acceptance of this transportation policy is a provision in the reauthorization bill to start the immediate development of a heavy-lift rocket.  This speeds up the schedule that President Obama described in his mid-April address at the Kennedy Space Center when he declared “we will finalize a rocket design no later than 2015 and then begin to build it. And I want everybody to understand: That’s at least two years earlier than previously planned -- and that’s conservative, given that the previous program was behind schedule and over budget.”The committee’s bill also authorizes continuing support for a crew exploration vehicle, a key component of NASA’s Constellation Program.

There has been considerable interest in extending the use of the space shuttle.  The bill authorizes an additional shuttle flight beyond the last scheduled mission in late February 2011.  There is uniform agreement for extending the use of the space station to at least 2020, which is authorized by the committee’s bill.  The legislation also contains workforce provisions, an issue of much concern to senators with space industries and facilities.

In concluding the markup, Chairman Rockefeller spoke of the importance of bipartisanship.  He also said that Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), chair of the Commerce, Justice, Science Appropriations Subcommittee, “likes what we are doing.”  Her subcommittee met this morning to mark up its FY 2011 funding bill.  Tomorrow, the House Science and Technology Committee will mark up a bipartisan NASA reauthorization bill that Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) states “embraces many of the president’s goals for our space program.”

Citing the disparity between available and future funding for NASA and its projected missions, OSTP Director John Holdren told the Senate committee earlier this year that “It clearly was time to press the reset button.”  The members of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee also pressed that reset button when they approved their NASA reauthorization bill.