Immediately after the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee wrapped up its hearing on a draft NASA authorization bill Wednesday morning, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) offered his views on the subject at a Space Transportation Association luncheon on the other side of Capitol Hill. Nelson, chairman of the space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, said his committee was working on its own version of a NASA authorization bill that would be ready by mid-July or perhaps sooner, in order to support appropriators.
Nelson made it clear that the Senate bill would differ in some key ways from the House bill. “I’m not going to approve of keeping it at 16.8 [billion dollars], because it would run the space program and NASA into a ditch,” Nelson said, referring to the overall budget authorized for NASA in the draft House bill. He was specifically critical of the earth sciences funding level in the House bill, saying it was “completely wiped out” in the bill. “You think Barbara Mikulski is going to allow that?” he asked, referring to the chairwoman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
“What we’re going to try to mark up is a balanced program,” he said, citing progress in both commercial crew development and the Space Launch System and Orion programs, as well as science programs, including the James Webb Space Telescope.
Nelson was particularly concerned that the authorization process would become divided along partisan lines, something that has traditionally not been the case for NASA. “The space program was always not bipartisan, it was nonpartisan,” he said. “The question is, are we going to have the ability to mark up a NASA authorization bill other than is it going to be a partisan vote?” Nelson said he was prepared to get a Senate version passed by relying solely on the Senate’s Democratic majority, but hoped that wasn’t necessary.
Even if the Senate is able to approve a NASA authorization in a “nonpartisan/bipartisan” manner, “what plays out over the rest of the year is nothing but chaos.” He expects that the House will delay decisions on key bills until a deal is made on increasing the debt ceiling, a point that he thinks may be delayed until late this year because of the improving economy.
While Nelson was hoping to find a bipartisan approach to a NASA authorization, he wasn’t shy about making some partisan jabs of his own. “If you want to play footsie with the Tea Party, you may as well say ‘sayonara’ to our manned space program and unmanned space program,” he said. He later gave some “homework” to the standing room only audience of space industry professionals. “I want you to get off your duff and stop playing ‘nicey nicey’ with these people who want to whack NASA because they’re wedded to an ideology that doesn’t make sense,” he sai, referring to sequestration. “It will set back our space program for years, and you all have got to stop being neutral.”