When Wednesday’s hearing by the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee on a proposed 2013 NASA authorization act appeared on the calendar last week, many observers speculated the hearing might be the official introduction of the bill, setting the stage for a markup of the bill by the full committee and then consideration by the House in the coming weeks. While that likely remains the bill’s trajectory, the hearing made clear that some members have issues with the “discussion draft” of the bill that was the topic of the hearing.
In particular, the top Democrats on both the space subcommittee and the full committee expressed concerns about various provisions in the draft bill. “The draft bill would appear to shift the emphasis of NASA’s core mission to human exploration,” said Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), ranking member of the space subcommittee, something that she said would run counter to the goals for NASA laid out in the National Aeronautics and Space Act that established the agency. Overall cuts in NASA spending (to $16.8 billion in fiscal year 2014) and to the earth sciences program in particular ($1.2 billion in FY14, compared to nearly $1.8 billion—pre-rescission and sequestration—in FY13) was a particular issue for Edwards. She called on additional hearings on topics like earth sciences and space technology before formally marking up the bill.
The draft bill “doesn’t contain funding commensurate with the tasks NASA has been asked to undertake,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), ranking member of the full committee. “In fact, it gives NASA additional, unfunded mandates while maintaining deep sequestration cuts over the life of the bill.” If the bill became law, she said, “it would not help the challenges facing the agency.”
“This is not a bill ready for markup. This is a flawed draft, starting from its funding assumptions, and I cannot support it in its present form,” she concluded. “I also predict that, if passed by the committee, this bill would be DOA in the Senate.”
One element of the bill that had received a lot of attention, language blocking funding for an asteroid retrieval mission, got a mixed reaction. “Because the mission appears to be a costly and complex distraction, this bill prohibits NASA from doing any work on the project,” said subcommittee chairman Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS) in his opening statement.
One of the hearing’s two witnesses, former Lockheed Martin executive Tom Young, was also critical of the mission concept. “I have a great worry about what I believe to be a declining trajectory for NASA and the civil space program,” he said, blaming it on “diffuse” leadership that lacks technical expertise. “As an example of what results from diffuse leadership, with too much authority in the wrong places, is the proposed asteroid retrieval mission. This is a mission that is not worthy of a world-class space program.”
The other witness, planetary scientist and NASA Advisory Council chairman Steve Squyres, argued that the bill may go too far in directing NASA about what it can and cannot do in human spaceflight. “I believe that it would be unwise for Congress to either prescribe or proscribe any key milestones in NASA’s Mars exploration roadmap at this time,” he said. “Personally, I agree with the draft authorization act’s position on the asteroid retrieval mission and I disagree with its position on a sustained lunar presence,” a reference to other language in the draft bill that calls for a sustained human lunar presence. However, he said that was just his opinion, and that such milestones towards the long-term goal of human Mars missions not be dictated by the President or Congress but instead established by NASA based on what it determines to be feasible, with oversight by Congress and others.
Squyres also worried about the earth sciences cuts in the draft authorization bill. “I view with considerable concern the deep cuts to earth science that are contained in the proposed authorization act,” he said. “On the administration side, I’ve seen what I view to be alarmingly deep cuts in planetary exploration, which has been, I think, one of NASA’s real shining successes in recent years. In this bill, the pendulum swings too far in the other direction, in my view, and has alarmingly deep cuts to Earth science.”
While the strongest opposition to the draft bill came from key Democratic committee members, one Republican also had issues with another aspect of the bill, the level of funding authorized for the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL) said that the $1.45 billion authorized for SLS in FY14 was too low. His constituents—his district includes the Marshall Space Flight Center—who have reviewed the bill, he said, found that funding level “most disconcerting.” He read an email he received earlier that morning from former NASA administrator Mike Griffin, who called the proposed funding level “not adequate” and said $1.8 billion was needed for SLS in FY14.
“Unless I receive differing expertise that satisfies me that our words in support of human spaceflight match our actions and deeds,” Brooks said, “I will have no choice but to vote against and otherwise oppose this authorization act.”
With most of the hearing devoted to exploration policy, SLS, science funding, and education (there seemed to be little opposition to a provision in the draft bill blocking the administration’s planned STEM education restructuring plan), there was little talk about another topic that was controversial in the past: commercial crew. The bill authorizes $700 million for commercial crew in FY14 and the same amount in FY15, but Palazzo said in his opening statement that this should not be treated as a “blank check” by NASA. The bill includes language requiring NASA to meet a “flight readiness demonstration deadline” of December 31, 2017, for at least one commercial crew system. “This deadline is not negotiable,” Palazzo said. “NASA must do whatever is necessary in its acquisition model to meet this deadline, even if that means radically altering their current plans.”