Congress, NASA

House Science Committee swiftly approves new NASA authorization

In a 180-degree turn from just nine months ago, the House Science Committee approved a revised NASA authorization bill Tuesday in a brief session marked by bipartisan cooperation rather than partisan rancor.

The committee approved, on a voice vote, HR 4412, a NASA authorization bill that the committee’s space subcommittee marked up on April 9. The version of the bill approved by the subcommittee was further amended with a single “manager’s amendment” that aggregated requested changes into a single document, 45 pages long. Some of the highlights of the new provisions:

  • The amendment includes provisions calling for studies of barriers to enhanced utilization of the ISS National Laboratory and lessons learned from the ongoing Commercial Resupply Services contracts with Orbital Sciences and SpaceX.
  • The amendment’s Section 316 prohibits NASA from spending any fiscal year 2014 funding on shutting down the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy (SOFIA) airborne observatory, which the administration said it planned to do in FY2015 if it could not find a partner to take over NASA’s 80-percent share of the project. There had been speculation that the shutdown costs would be more than what is requested in FY15, requiring some FY14 funds be used to support that.
  • Sections 715 and 716 call for reports on orbital debris mitigation strategies and also for orbital debris removal strategies.
  • Section 717 requires NASA to develop a formal policy regarding its use of commercial suborbital vehicles for research, development, and education activities, including an assessment of the capabilities of those vehicles and the risks of any NASA-sponsored spaceflight participants flying on them. Such spaceflight participants would not be allowed to fly on those vehicles until NASA completed those assessments and also addressed indemnification and liability issues.
  • Section 720 would require NASA to coordinate with the Defense Department to ensure that any new liquid-propellant engine the DOD decides to develop can also support NASA needs. That provision is timely, since the draft of the Strategic Forces section of the FY15 National Defense Authorization Act, also released Tuesday, calls for the development of such an engine by 2019, authorizing $220 million to spend on the program in FY15.
    Section 725 calls on the Office of Science and Technology Policy to review the issues associated with protecting historic Apollo landing sites. Last year Reps. Donna Edwards (D-MD) and Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), ranking members of the space subcommittee and full science committee, respectively, introduced HR 2617, which would have designated the Apollo landing sites as National Historic Parks. This section does not go that far, but does request in the study an examination of “which additional domestic legislation or international treaties or agreements will be required” to protect the sites.

Today’s hearing was a far cry from the committee’s previous markup of a NASA authorization bill last July, which lasted for hours because of debates on a long series of amendments, most of which failed on party lines. The committee eventually approved the bill, again on a party-line vote, but scrapped it earlier this year in favor of the revised bill, which faced none of that earlier debate on Tuesday.

“I consider reauthorizing NASA to be one of our Committee’s most significant legislative responsibilities,” Johnson said in a statement after the markup session. “And that is why I am pleased that after some initial missteps, this Committee is addressing that responsibility with a good bipartisan bill—something that has long been a hallmark of this Committee.”

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