Key members of Congress and their staffs indicated this week that reauthorization of NASA is one of their priorities for the coming year. However, in comments at FAA’s annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington, they indicated that these efforts would be more along the lines of adjustments to existing policies than major revisions of them.
A NASA reauthorization bill has been a priority for members of both the House Science Committee and Senate Commerce Committee for some time, as the most recent NASA authorization act, passed in 2010, runs through fiscal year 2013. A key challenge, though, will be reconciling goals for the agency laid out in the authorization with available money, particularly as funding has fallen far short of authorized levels in 2012 and likely again in 2013. “Even in a constrained fiscal environment,” said Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), ranking member of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, “I believe it’s possible to cement an authorization” that can be funded.
That mismatch between authorization and appropriations—appropriations for fiscal year 2013 will fall far short of the $19.96 billion authorized for NASA in the 2010 act—will be a key challenge in the next authorization bill. “We realize that the appropriation has not kept pace with the authorization overall, making the next authorization much more of a challenge,” said Ann Zulkosky, senior professional staff on the Senate Commerce Committee, during a panel at the FAA conference Wednesday.
However, it’s unlikely the next authorization act will make major policy changes, at least compared to 2010. “The reauthorization this year will build off the 2010 act and make the necessary policy updates,” Zulkosky said, noting that the policy language in the 2010 act remains in effect even after the end of the current fiscal year. Tony Detora, senior policy advisor for Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), concurred. “This process will be less contentious than the 2010 process,” he said, noting he was speaking for himself. “That policy direction is generally agreed upon.”
One area of discussion will be on NASA’s commercial crew program, including both funding levels and implementation. “We need to ensure an appropriate balance between the government’s investment and that of participating companies,” Zulkosky said, adding that the FY12 funding level of $406 million for commercial crew “would certainly be challenging against the backdrop of sequestration.” She said there’s likely to be discussion of contracting methods and maintaining competition.
Jeff Bingham, a veteran Senate staffer speaking for himself, defended previous efforts by the now-retired Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) to force NASA to downselect to a single commercial crew provider as soon as possible. “What she wanted to do was to try and make it possible for NASA to do a good job with commercial crew development in light of the lack of available resources,” he said. NASA needs both a commercial crew program as well as the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft, he said, something challenging in the current budget environment. “We need to have both,” he said. “You can’t really do both on a flatline budget.”
The commercial crew program did get support from a key appropriator, though. “We fought to increase the commercial line,” said Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA), ranking member of the Commerce, Justice, and Science subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, in a speech at the conference Thursday. “It is something I am committed to, and I pledge to continue to work with you on this as we go forward.”
That budget and policy situation hasn’t stopped some members from thinking about bigger changes, however. “We must have a better defined US mission going forward,” said Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS), chairman of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, in a speech at the conference Wednesday afternoon. “I believe we should go back to the Moon, so let’s create blueprints, dates, put the money forward, and set our boots on the regolith once again.”
“Astronauts have inspired generations of Americans, but, with no clear mission, NASA needs decisive leadership from Congress,” wrote Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the full House Science Committee, in an op-ed this week in Roll Call. “As we move beyond the space shuttle era, the committee will help keep our space program moving forward. We will work on a NASA reauthorization bill that promotes the commercialization of space and advances space exploration to expand our knowledge of the universe and inspire our nation.”