The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee has advanced a NASA authorization bill that focuses on space exploration and seeks to ensure stability at the space agency through the upcoming presidential transition. Unlike the House-passed NASA authorization bill, the Senate bill has only a few provisions specific to NASA’s science divisions.
At a Sept. 21 business meeting, the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee unanimously approved the “NASA Transition Authorization Act,” a counterpart bill to the “NASA Authorization Act” the House passed in February 2015.
Whereas the House backed a sweeping authorization bill that addresses all of NASA’s major programs, including providing extensive guidance to NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, the Senate bill focuses on big picture strategy and ensuring stability at the agency through the upcoming presidential transition. The Senate legislation emphasizes NASA’s role in space exploration, and it would formalize in statute the horizon goal of sending humans to Mars as well as support steps for getting there.
Space, Science, and Competitiveness Subcommittee Chairman Ted Cruz (R-TX) outlined the aim of the bill in his opening statement, cautioning against significant changes in NASA’s direction when the new administration arrives:
We have seen in the past the importance of stability and predictability in NASA and space exploration – that whenever one has a change in administration, we have seen the chaos that can be caused by the cancellation of major programs. Whether it was the cancellation of the Constellation program, whether it was the cancellation of the space shuttle, the impact in terms of jobs lost, the impact in terms of money wasted has been significant. I want to commend the members of this committee on both sides of the aisle for coming together in a bipartisan manner to provide clarity and predictability and support for America’s continued leadership in space.
Full committee Ranking Member Bill Nelson (D-FL), a longtime champion of NASA, also supported the bill and provided forward-looking remarks during his opening statement:
Last week marked the 55th anniversary of President Kennedy’s challenge to send a man to the Moon by the end of the decade. The NASA bill we passed today keeps us moving toward a new and even more ambitious goal – sending humans to Mars.
The bill backs the continued development of the Space Launch System rocket and the Orion crew vehicle, setting 2021 as the goal for Orion’s first crewed mission. However, it also questions the merits of one of the current administration’s proposed stepping stones to Mars, the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM). The bill directs NASA to consider alternatives to the ARM without explicitly calling for its cancellation.
Unlike House-passed NASA bill, Senate bill is light on science
With human space exploration and the journey to Mars being the bill’s primary focus, science receives mostly secondary attention. A relatively short section on “Advancing Space Science” does, however, include some language specific to planetary science as well as general support for the James Webb Space Telescope, Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, Mars 2020 Rover, and a mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa, which experts believe harbors an undersurface ocean that could be capable of sustaining life.
The Senate bill also would call on NASA to look into extending the life of the International Space Station to 2028 to continue research important to helping humans safely reach Mars. In addition, the legislation would direct NASA to continue to use decadal surveys, organized and published by the National Academy of Sciences, to guide mission priorities within the Science Mission Directorate.
With respect to funding for the space agency, the bill would authorize $19.508 billion overall for NASA in fiscal year 2017, equal to the amount the House Appropriations Committee approved earlier this year for the space agency and $202 million higher than the amount the Senate Appropriations Committee approved. If appropriated at this level, it would mean a 1.2 percent year-over-year funding increase for the space agency.
However, within this amount, the authorizers propose $5.395 billion for the Science Mission Directorate, which is the lesser of the House and Senate appropriations proposals for fiscal year 2017. If appropriated, this would mean a 3.5 percent cut in funding for NASA Science from the currently appropriated level.
During his remarks, Senator Markey objected to the reduction in authorized funding for NASA science and education:
[The bill] cuts science by $200 million dollars and it cuts education by $7 million dollars over 2016 appropriated levels. Those are key components in an integrated strategy, long term, in dealing with the issues that are central to our ability to solve the problems of space exploration. … That’s a big decision to cut science by $200 million dollars in this bill.
Senators push related measures alongside NASA bill
At the Sept. 21 business meeting, the committee also approved the “Inspiring the Next Pioneers, Innovators, Researchers, and Explorers Women Act,” which the House approved last March. The relatively short bill, sponsored by Rep. Barbara Comstock (R-VA), would call on NASA to step up efforts to recruit women into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, through a number of NASA-based education programs.
Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) took the opportunity to tout a bill he is sponsoring alongside Sens. Cory Gardner (R-CO) and Cory Booker (D-NJ). Peters remarked that Congress should pass not only the NASA authorization bill but also the “Space Weather Research and Forecasting Act,” which the Senate Commerce Committee approved unanimously this April: “I think the space weather bill together with this NASA bill represent a strong and positive bipartisan consensus for our space program and national preparedness.”
The 114th Congress will have about six weeks to conduct business when it returns to D.C. after the Nov. 8 general election before it must hand over reins to the 115th Congress. It is as of yet unclear whether congressional leaders intend to prioritize the NASA authorization bill in the limited time remaining this year.