[Second in a series.]
The conference report accompanying the FY2008 appropriations bill contains a number of provisions calling on studies, either by NASA or outside agencies, on various areas of concern to Congress:
The conference report states that the House and Senate appropriations committees are concerned that “NASA is not able to anticipate adequately technical problems and project overruns on existing programs, and are especially concerned that new programs, such as Project Constellation, will encounter similar problems.” They are also similarly concerned with the decisionmaking process within NASA to resolve such problems. Thus, the report directs NASA to “establish an ongoing relationship with the National Academy of Sciences for the purpose of providing an independent project review capability using ad hoc committees established under the purview of the Space Studies Board and/or the Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board,” with $1 million set aside in the Cross-Agency Support Programs budget for such work. The report adds that the appropriations committees “do not intend to recommend approval of any major program changes unless an independent review by the National Academies concurs with NASA’s proposed course of action.”
The report also explicitly supports efforts to keep Arecibo Observatory in operation, directing NASA “to provide additional funding” for the radio telescope. Part of that interest in Arecibo is rooted in its space radar capability, used to study near Earth objects (NEOs); the report calls on NASA to call on the National Research Council (NRC) to study NEO survey and deflection strategies. An interim report, focused on survey programs, is due in 15 months, while the final report, with “recommendations regarding the optimal approach to developing a deflection capability”, is due in 21 months.
The report also states that NASA should ask the NRC to study the availability of radioisotope power systems, which are needed for planetary missions where solar power is infeasible. Both NASA and the Department of Energy have raised concerns about the availability of plutonium fuel used for such systems, but the report notes that “NASA has curtailed a major part of its technology development for advanced RPS devices.”
Yet another NASA-NRC study request involves a decadal study of life and physical science research in microgravity, to establish priorities for such research planned between 2010 and 2020. The report also calls on NASA to increase spending on “non-exploration” microgravity life and physical sciences research in FY08 by $13.5 million.
There has been a lot of discussion about COTS in the budget, including the cut in funding for the program and language which directs NASA to not make a new award until after the GAO reviews a current protest by Rocketplane Kistler. However, the report also directs the GAO to “perform a full review of COTS program expenditures and management,” although it appears that this study would not itself hold up the COTS program.
Congress is also asking the GAO to study NASA’s plans for the post-shuttle transition, noting the appropriations committees’ concerns “about this immense and unprecedented undertaking of transitioning assets and facilities to another NASA program, for external use, or for disposal, as well as the transitioning of the space shuttle workforce.”
Finally, the report specifically directs the NASA administrator to study “the possibility” of sending the Alpha Magnetic Spectometer (AMS) to the ISS. The report is due to Congress within 30 days “and should include the steps necessary to prepare for such a mission.” The report, though, doesn’t specify that such a mission be a shuttle mission.