Congress, NASA

Déjà vu: Congress wants to do NASA reauthorization, commercial launch update this year

One year ago, members of Congress involved in space issues had some high hopes for 2013, including a new NASA authorization bill and an update of the Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA). By the end of the year, though, House and Senate committees had approved sharply different NASA authorization bills—neither of which had been taken up by the full House or Senate—and hadn’t even started a CSLA update. (Even getting an extension of commercial launch indemnification was a challenge.) This year, though, key members and their staffs say they’ll try again to get both bills through Congress.

Speaking Wednesday morning at the 17th Annual FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington, Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS), chairman of the space subcommittee of the House Science Committee said he was hopeful that a bipartisan version of the NASA authorization bill—debate about which was unusually partisan last year—could be completed. “I think a bipartisan bill is in the realm of reality,” he said. Last month, the chairman of the full committee, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), expressed a similar desire for a bipartisan bill now that the two-year budget deal reached late last year can help resolve the sharp differences in authorized funding levels between the House and Senate versions.

During a panel at the conference later Wednesday, staff members from the House and Senate agreed that Congress will work on a revised NASA authorization bill in the coming weeks. “Sen. Nelson would certainly like to get that updated in light of the budget deal and the omnibus, and get that moving again early this year,” said Ann Zulkosky of the Senate Commerce Committee, referring to Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), chairman of the committee’s space subcommittee.

“The only controversy that I think rose out of the NASA authorization markup really dealt with funding issues,” said Tom Hammond of the House Science Committee staff, referring to that committee’s markup of its version of a NASA authorization last July. With the budget deal and 2014 appropriations done, “I think members are hopeful that a lot of that will be behind them and they’ll be able to move forward early this spring.”

Both the House and Senate plan to take up legislation to update the CSLA this year as well, with the House Science Committee’s hearing earlier this week on “necessary updates” to current law as the first step in that process. Palazzo said the House would likely consider several issues in that update, including how the FAA calculates “maximum probable loss” figures (the amount of third-party damages that commercial launch providers must insure against before federal indemnification kicks in), extending the current restrictions (aka “learning period”) on spaceflight participant safety regulations, and the treatment by the FAA of so-called “hybrid” vehicles that have both aircraft and spacecraft elements, like SpaceShipTwo and its carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo. Hammond said later other issues could include the FAA’s interest in on-orbit authority to provide oversight of commercial space activities between launch and reentry, and addressing a current aspect of the law where a vehicle developer who has a permit for test flights has to give up that permit once it receives a launch license.

Zulkosky said the Senate Commerce Committee was looking to introduce a CSLA update bill “in the spring timeframe” along with a hearing on the topic. “This is an election year, so we have limited legislative days,” she said. “We’d like to get things going as quickly as possible this year.” Several issues she said the Senate bill would address are standards development, the license/permit issue, oversight within FAA of hybrid launch vehicles, updating commercial launch indemnification, and the commercial spaceflight regulatory restriction. “We are just really at the beginning phase of identifying what needs to be in a CSLA update,” Zulkosky said later in response to a question about potential provisions of the bill.

11 comments to Déjà vu: Congress wants to do NASA reauthorization, commercial launch update this year

  • Dark Blue Nine

    “Last month, the chairman of the full committee, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), expressed a similar desire for a bipartisan bill now that the two-year budget deal reached late last year can help resolve the sharp differences in authorized funding levels between the House and Senate versions…

    … ‘The only controversy that I think rose out of the NASA authorization markup really dealt with funding issues,” said Tom Hammond of the House Science Committee staff…”

    Authorization bills are supposed to come before and set spending limits for appropriations bills. There’s little or no point to authorization bills and committees if agreement between the grown-ups with the real power on the appropriations committees is necessary for the authorizers to get their act together and pass an authorization bill.

    • Hiram

      NASA authorization bills are generally for three years. So, in fact, the Auth bill would come before at least a few Approps bills if it wasn’t available in the first year. But I agree, it’s still dumb not to get them done on time.

      The purpose of an Auth bill is fundamentally different than an Approps bill. The latter is for precisely one year. How many NASA projects are completed in precisely one year and even in one congressional delegation? The former is not only for several years, but it provides vastly more rationale and justification for expenses than an Approps bill does. Yes, Approps provides real money. But Auth provides long-range and detailed guidance for that money that survives new elections. There are those who consider the former more important than the latter, but I think that’s a policy-narrow view. Approps are where the dollars are, but Auth is where the policy is.

      • Dark Blue Nine

        “NASA authorization bills are generally for three years. So, in fact, the Auth bill would come before at least a few Approps bills if it wasn’t available in the first year.”

        That wasn’t my point. My point is that the authorizers couldn’t get a bill passed last year and are now relying on last year’s appropriations to set authorized budget levels for the next three years. That’s backwards. Authorizers can’t set policy if all they’re doing is following last year’s appropriators. There’s no point to the authorizers’ existence if they let the appropriators set both policy and budget.

        The authorizers are impotent. They need to get their act together or Congress should do away with their committees as they relate to NASA.

        “But Auth provides long-range and detailed guidance for that money that survives new elections.”

        I’d question this historically. The authorizers stood behind Griffin’s Constellation, but Congress still voted overwhelmingly to terminate it a half decade later after a change in Administration. MPCV/SLS is on the same path. Maybe they’re needed for FAA launch and space flight regs, but the authorizers have no effective purpose when it comes to NASA programmatics.

        • James

          The power and prestige go to those on the appropriations committees. Because that is where the money is and that is the real target of lobbyist money too. Hence the indifference to when an authorization bill gets crafted – if at all

        • Hiram

          “I’d question this historically. The authorizers stood behind Griffin’s Constellation, but Congress still voted overwhelmingly to terminate it a half decade later after a change in Administration.”

          I don’t believe that’s the history. The Augustine panel declared Constellation unviable in October 2009. While the NASA 2008 Auth bill had endorsed Constellation enthusiastically, that endorsement by the authorizers disappeared in the 2010 Auth bill (passed in October 2010). The authorizers no longer stood behind it. But at that time, Constellation spending was still mandated by the FY2010 Consolidated Appropriations Act (December 2009). Money was still shooting at Constellation. It took the Continuing Resolution Approps bill in February 2011 to actually cancel Constellation funding. So Constellation was formally terminated by the appropriators four months AFTER the authorizers removed their support for it.

          As to “power and prestige” going to Approps, yep, because that’s where the dollars show up AND that’s the committee that used to have earmarks to play with. They really aren’t as powerful as they used to be, now that formal earmarking isn’t permitted. Also, lobbyists are judged by their 1-year performance on dollar flow. But Congress understands very well that appropriating money that hasn’t been authorized is dangerous and somewhat sleazy. It’s forking over money without real foresight.

          • Gary Miles

            You seem to forget that for the 1st Congressional term under President Obama was in control of the Democrats in both House and Senate. The changes were in fact debated vigorously at the time when the new FY 2011 NASA was released in February 2010 essentially killing the Constellation program. SLS became the compromise.

            • Hiram

              I don’t think this is relevant to the question. The question was how synchronized Auth and Approps were on Constellation.

            • Vladislaw

              Wrong, the Senate never had 60 democrat votes. The Minnesota Senate race was contested by Norm Colman so the seat wasn’t filled by the time an additional democratic seat was lost, they never hit 60.

              • Gary Miles

                Vladislaw, the Democrats had majority control of the Senate with 58 Democrats and 1 Independent which means that they controlled what legislation came to the floor and got passed. Not every legislation required 60 votes to get passed. Senator Jay Rockefeller sponsored the NASA Authorization of 2010 which set in motion the heavy lift development program that resulted in NASA selecting the current SLS system the following September 2011.

  • Egad

    Is it possible that lack of an authorization bill is a factor in the non-appearance of the SLS Key Decision Point C? I.e., would the constraints contained in the bill be necessary for NASA to formulate the SLS program plan/budget that, AIUI, is a part of KDP-C?

    • Coastal Ron

      Egad said:

      Is it possible that lack of an authorization bill is a factor in the non-appearance of the SLS Key Decision Point C?

      I hadn’t thought of that, and I had to go look up what the SLS Key Decision Point C is. Apparently there are three key documents prepared in advance of KDP-C:

      - The Program Commitment Agreement (PCA)
      - The Program Plan
      - The lifecycle cost estimate

      From another article:

      The lifecycle cost estimate “forms the basis of the Agency’s external commitment to OMB [the White House Office of Management and Budget] and Congress,” according to NPR 7120.5E. In essence, this estimate defines the budget for the rest of the SLS development.

      So apparently this would be very relevant to the NASA budget, especially if the budget profile exceeds expectations (on the high side of course).

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