Congress, NASA

New year, old issues

The beginning of a new year is a time for change: at the very least, putting up those 2014 calendars and tossing the 2013 versions into the recycle bin. However, as 2014 begins, it will look at least initially a lot like 2013 for space policy, as Congress deals with some unfinished business regarding spending and other legislation.

The biggest near-term priority for Congress when it returns next week will be fiscal year 2014 appropriations. While the budget deal reached last month set overall spending levels for 2014 and 2015, avoiding sequestration in the process, it’s still up to House and Senate appropriators to come up with a bill or bills to appropriate that money before the continuing resolution (CR) funding the government expires on January 15. POLITICO reported earlier this week that appropriators have been working on a single omnibus appropriations bill that is expected to be finalized next week.

Details about the bill aren’t included in that report, although it does state that the section covering commerce, justice, and science—including NASA and NOAA—is among those “largely finalized.” For NASA, that likely means falling somewhere between the $16.6 billion House appropriators approved and the $18 billion from their Senate counterparts.

Although many space advocates argue that policy should drive the budget, it’s likely the opposite will remain true. The House appropriations bill, for example, blocks any spending on NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission, while the Senate is silent on it. The two bills also have significant differences in the amount available for Commercial Crew, which could drive decisions later in 2014 on how many companies NASA can support in the next phase of the program when it awards contract(s) this summer.

Besides appropriations, there is space-related legislation awaiting action. The year 2013 ended without enactment of a bill to extend the commercial launch indemnification regime. In mid-December the Senate passed an amended version of a bill the House passed in early December, changing the House’s one-year extension to a three-year one. However, the House had adjourned for the year by the time the Senate took action. Launch licenses currently in place, or applications submitted by December 31, still have indemnification protection, but any new applications would not be included in the regime—at least until the House and Senate get around resolving their differences.

Also awaiting the House is legislation approved by the House Science Committee last month to stop NASA from withholding funds for termination liability for several key agency programs. The bill would also effectively make it impossible to cancel those programs—the Space Launch System, Orion spacecraft, International Space Station, and James Webb Space Telescope—unless Congress passes legislation to do so. The bill’s future, though, is uncertain, even if it passes the House: it’s unlikely the administration would support a bill that would, in essence, take control over the future of several key programs out of its hands.

And, if members are feeling really ambitious, they might take up the NASA authorization bills they started working on in 2013. The Senate Commerce Committee passed its version in late July on a party-line vote, after the House Science Committee approved its quite different version earlier in the month, also along party lines. Neither bill has made progress since then, and with the sharp differences in opinion both in authorized spending levels and policy, the bills might remain in legislative limbo indefinitely.

9 comments to New year, old issues

  • amightywind

    A down select for commercial crew is essential to accelerate the glacial pace of that program. There may be no mission for it after 2020. The asteroid lasso mission must be stonewalled at any cost. It is a nutty idea.

    • Coastal Ron

      amightywind said:

      A down select for commercial crew is essential to accelerate the glacial pace of that program.

      Glacial pace?

      The Orion/MPCV has been an active program since 2005 and isn’t forecasted to fly with humans until 2021 – 16 YEARS AFTER PROGRAM START.

      Compare that to the Commercial Crew program, which gets a fraction of the budget that the Orion/MPCV does. The initial contract was awarded in 2010, and we could have two different spacecraft designs flying crew by 2017 – 7 YEARS AFTER PROGRAM START.

      Any normal person would laugh at your comment when presented with these facts.

  • Coastal Ron

    So let’s see:

    1. The Republican House wants to cut NASA’s budget, and make it illegal to plan a mission that was only proposed so the SLS and MPCV would have something to do to merit the $Billions being spent on them. Unfortunately there still is no known need for them.

    2. The Republican House also wants to suspend common sense rules about program termination costs, and suspend common sense oversight of expensive programs that have no known need (i.e. Pork).

    Now I’m not saying that Democrats are waiting in the wings to spend lavishly on NASA – they are not. But I just wanted to point out that Republican’s are not the saviors for NASA that some people think they are. And that won’t change with a Republican President, especially from the group that ran in 2012 not named Newt.

    NASA continues to be a source of funding for certain states and districts regardless what result that funding has, and until a more understandable goal for NASA is agreed upon for all concerned parties, NASA will continue to meander along without any prospect of getting much done.

  • Fred Willett

    To me it seems that when the congress seeks to enact legislation forbidding the setting aside of termination monies they are seeking to lock in permanently the “old” way of doing space.
    NASA must keep on doing SLS/MPCV regardless.
    Meanwhile, around them, the space landscape is changing slowly but relentlessly.
    SpaceX has begun work on a big methane engine. Most of the big rocket fans think this is for a Falcon X rocket which will make SLS look quaint. Maybe, eventually, but personally I think its real use is for 2nd stage reusability. The biggest 2nd stage that Falcon Heavy can carry. Such a stage will give heaps of margin for 2nd stage reusability, and that’s the real way to the future for spaceflight.
    Reusability means cheap. Reusability means a burgeoning demand for spaceflight that will push Musk to Mars before you or I can blink.
    The fact that such a big methane powered 2nd stage on FH would push FH past SLS’s 70t lift capacity is beside the point. The goal isn’t sheer volume. It’s cost.
    At $1B a launch SLS is never going to do anything useful.
    A really low cost launch service – even if the net payload is only 10t a launch – will open space to real development.
    Unfortunately Congress doesn’t see that. They are only interested in protecting their pork.

  • I consider the SLS a complete waste of money, and of the other three projects Orion has some limited merit, the JWST great merit (even though I think it’s the one on the riskiest political footing), and the ISS is an essential market for SpaceX, OSC, Sierra Nevada, et al. With the possible exception of the Web, the chances of any of these getting killed in today’s political environment is nill. If so, why sustain the lost opportunity costs of retaining the termination fees? If these funds could make SLS available, say, a year earlier for the asteroid retrieval, why not spend them? I would feel (very) differently if there were any chance SLS would disappear, but, alas, I’m afraid there isn’t.

    – Donald

    • Coastal Ron

      Donald F. Robertson said:

      If these funds could make SLS available, say, a year earlier for the asteroid retrieval, why not spend them?

      Because, oddly enough, the House also wants to make it illegal to do any work on an asteroid retrieval program.

      So they want a heavy lifter, but they have no interest in possible uses for one.

      Curiouser and curiouser…

  • Unfortunately, House Republicans don’t really care whether something makes sense — if they can use it to entangle Mr. Obama, it’s good. Mr. Obama is for privatizing spaceflight and killing Socialist spaceflight — probably for the wrong reasons, but the right policies — so, adding in a mess of pork, the Republicans are for a Socialist space program and against a free market. It certainly is curious!

    Don’t forget, Obamacare started out as a Republican plan, and only became evil incarnate when Obama started pushing it. (BTW, I think the Republicans made a serious strategic error when they called their own plan “Obamacare.” If it succeeds — and I think in some form that it will — a hundred years from now it will still be called Obamacare. It’s as if Social Security today were called Roosevelt Security.)

    • amightywind

      so, adding in a mess of pork, the Republicans are for a Socialist space program and against a free market. It certainly is curious!

      One of the worst aspects of Obama’s Socialism is cronyism, of which the commercial crew program reeks.

      If it succeeds — and I think in some form that it will

      We look forward to the dems running on this in 2014.

      • Coastal Ron

        amightywind said:

        One of the worst aspects of Obama’s Socialism is cronyism, of which the commercial crew program reeks.

        As Inigo Montoya would say:

        You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.

        The Commercial Crew program was competitively bid and open to any qualified participants. Losers even had the ability to protest the awards, and no one did. Why is that?

        On the flip side though, the SLS and MPCV programs were mandated by Congress to use the same contractors – no competitive bids.

        So what better fits the definition of cronyism, a competitively bid program or one that was mandated by politicians to use specific technologies and contractors?

        Face it Bub, the SLS program is the one reeking of cronyism here, and you know it. And because that appears to be one of your definitions of socialism, then apparently the Republican’s are socialists for supporting the SLS. How ironic, huh? ;-)

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