In the end, this morning’s markup was short and sweet, full on self-congratulation and lacking any debate or tension. The Senate Commerce Committee approved unanimously a NASA authorization bill that will “refocus and reinvigorate the agency in a smart, fiscally responsible way”, in the words of committee chairman Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV).
The committee did approve a number of amendments to the bill, although the contents of most of them were not discussed during the session. One amendment that the committee did approve was from Sen. Tom Udall (D-NM) that would authorize NASA’s Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research (CRuSR) program at the administration’s requested level of $15 million a year. It also approved an amendment from Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) that increased funding levels for technology programs. However, left off the list of amendments was one from Sen. Mark Warner (D-VA) that would have restored funds to the commercial crew program to the level requested by the administration, as well as make other changes to the program. The full, amended text of the legislation hasn’t been released yet, but presumably should be in THOMAS in the next couple of days.
Members of the committee from both sides of the aisle praised the bill. “This legislation approved today represents a strong balance between the need for investment in new technology and the continued evolution of the commercial market to take an increasing role in supporting our efforts in low Earth orbit,” Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX), ranking member of the committee, said. “The goal was to preserve U.S. leadership in space exploration and keep as much of the rocket-industry talent as possible employed,” Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), chairman of the committee’s space subcommittee, said in a statement. The subcommittee’s ranking member, Sen. David Vitter (R-LA), played up the local benefits of the legislation, in particular the Michoud Assembly Facility in New Orleans: “With this bipartisan bill, we’re not only going to start making the changes we need to save Michoud, we’re going to ensure these jobs stay in Louisiana and bring NASA back in line with its original mission as the world’s leader in manned space flight.”
Vitter was not the only one making a local connection in comments on the legislation. “In February, the President announced a plan which would have resulted in the end of our nation’s manned space flight program and Utah’s solid rocket motor industrial base,” said Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT). “Today, after six months of work, we have taken an important first step away from the abyss.” Sen. George LeMieux (R-FL) also sees the bill as a step away from death and despair: “What this bill does is take NASA off life support so it can prepare the shuttle for ‘launch on need’ and move ahead with the heavy lift rocket program and the next generation space vehicle by 2016, which is a big improvement compared to the Administration’s plan.”
The authorization bill goes to the full Senate, although it’s not clear when they will be willing to take it up. However, in the near term it appears that the legislation will serve as a model for appropriators: next week a subcommittee of the Senate Appropriations Committee will mark up the FY11 Commerce, Justice, and Science appropriations bill. The chair of that subcommittee, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-MD), “I think likes what we’re doing,” Rockefeller said near the end of the markup. Afterwards Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL), ranking member of that subcommittee, indicated his support, at least in general, to the authorization bill, calling it “a good first step in the legislative process” but noting that appropriators like him “will determine the ultimate outcome”.
However, commercial space supporters in the Commerce committee hinted that they may make another effort to restore funding for commercial crew when the authorization bill is taken up by the full Senate. “As we move to the floor, I’m going to be teaming up with some colleagues who would like to see a little more done on the commercial side, so we’ll all work together and maybe we can get that done,” Sen. Boxer said during the markup. “I know it’s been a challenging process, I know the Administration has been working with us and others as well who are advocates of commercial space, and I think there may be even more room to go,” said Sen. Warner.