Congress, NASA

New NASA authorization bill makes only minor changes to last year’s version

At 9 am today, the space subcommittee of the House Science Committee will mark up a new version of a NASA authorization bill, formally introduced earlier this week. The new bill, HR 4412, is very similar to the bill the Science Committee marked up last summer, HR 2687, a bill that generated unusually strong partisan divisions. There are some differences, though, between the two bills, and some of the major ones are summarized below:

  • Unlike last year’s bill, which authorized spending for two years (fiscal years 2014 and 2015), the new bill covers only one year—fiscal year 2014. Yes, this bill authorizes spending that was already appropriated three months ago. Needless to say, the authorization and appropriated funding levels match up.
  • As in the case with last year’s bill, the new bill blocks NASA from spending money on its “Asteroid Retrieval Mission” (which NASA has been calling the “Asteroid Redirect Mission” since last summer) until it completes a number of reports. The new bill requires that those reports also assess the technologies that ARM provides to support planetary defense applications.
  • The bill includes language addressing the reservations of funds for termination liability, as in the previous bill, but with some changes. The old bill stated that NASA “shall direct prime contractors not to reserve funds,” while the new bill states that NASA will not “require the reservation of funds by the prime contractor.” The new bill also directs that funds already reserved for termination liability “be promptly used to make maximum progress” for those programs (SLS, Orion, ISS, and JWST) and notify Congress 120 days before initiating the termination of a contract for convenience of cause. The older bill expressly prohibited NASA from terminating contracts for convenience for covered programs.
  • Section 215, which in the original bill required the next phase of NASA’s commercial crew program to be “under a cost-type contract”, now deals with Aerospace Safety Advisory Council (ASAP) advice, requiring NASA to report on advice provided by ASAP that it plans to follow or not, and why. That matches an amendment to the bill made during the markup to the earlier bill last July.
  • Section 711 of the original bill, which established a fixed six-year term for the NASA administrator, is not in the new bill.
  • The new bill contains two new sections, 305 and 502, that require NASA to use the ISS and related commercial services for science and technology demonstration missions “wherever it is practical and cost effective to do so.”
  • The section of the bill covering Space Act Agreements, which originally specified that any such agreement be used when standard contracts or other instruments are “not feasible or appropriate”, now refers only to funded Space Act Agreements.
  • A provision in the original bill that provided a five-year extension of commercial launch indemnification has been removed, as Congress already passed a three-year extension.
  • Language in several places in the earlier bill about cooperation with international partners is expanded in the new bill to include commercial partners and other not-for-profit partners.
  • The new bill includes, in section 203, a requirement for NASA to conduct a naming competition for the SLS and the overall “deep space human exploration program.”

5 comments to New NASA authorization bill makes only minor changes to last year’s version

  • Hiram

    An authorization bill that authorizes spending already appropriated is sad. It basically gives retroactive permission to the appropriators to do what they already did. This is a recipe for irrelevance. Authorization bills, which usually provide congressional guidance for several years, even into the next congress, set long term congressional policy. While in many respects, this expression of congressional intent doesn’t expire, this bill shows little effort to develop that intent. Just keep doin’ what y’all are doin’, hear? Of course, with respect to human deep space flight, Congress is unhappy that NASA hasn’t put together entirely credible plans, so Congress just waves it’s arms giving blanket approval to very general actions, such as report generation, pointing generally at Mars and the Moon.

  • Coastal Ron

    Yes, this bill certainly shows that at least the House is not interested in new grand plans for human space exploration. Unless “grand plans” means waiting for a report on what to name potential plans (but not detail out said plans).

    This must be pretty frustrating for SLS supporters, since no attempt to fund future SLS missions means that the reckoning point for the SLS program will have very clear choices – if there are no missions, then the SLS should be cancelled, and if Congress doesn’t want to do that then they have to find lots of extra $Billions somewhere, and for a sustained basis.

    Oh course the Senate may surprise us and propose something that the House will go along with. Anyone know when the Senate appropriation bill comes out?

  • Andrew Swallow

    Since this bill only authorises NASA for a single year I assume that a second bill will be introduced to cover future years, possibly after the elections in November.

    • Hiram

      NASA authorization has been on a three year cycle, so the schedule has never been governed by change of congress. But yes, the committee has tried hard to make sure the appropriators always have current FY authorization in their pocket (if just, in this case, as an after-the-fact matter of record), so yes, it makes a lot of sense that another bill will come along shortly.

      Now, on the schedule set out in this bill, in another year, Congress will have a formal Mars-forward planning report to sink their teeth into. That ought to permit them to be more decisive.

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