On Thursday, the full House Appropriations Committee marked up the Commerce, Justice, and Science (CJS) appropriations bill that the CJS subcommittee approved last week. The full committee didn’t adopt any amendments that affected the NASA provisions in the bill, although Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-OH) introduced, then withdrew, an amendment to add $85.5 million to NASA’s Space Technology program, bringing it up to the level in the administration’s request. (NASA’s Glenn Research Center is in Kaptur’s district, and she argued that the center would be disproportionally affected by the funding cut in the program.) Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), chairman of the CJS subcommittee, said he would work with Kaptur to see if there is a way to increase funding for the account before the bill goes to the House floor, possibly late this month.
Shortly after the committee completed its work on the bill Thursday afternoon, Robert La Branche, senior legislative assistant to Rep. John Culberson (R-TX), a member of the committee’s CJS subcommittee, spoke at the meeting of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC). While speaking only for himself, he provided some insights into some elements of the appropriations bill, including a provision in the report accompanying the bill calling on NASA to downselect to a single company in the next round of the commercial crew program.
“While this may not be ideally the best situation, to pare down to one provider,” he said, “with only one access for crew to the International Space Station, from Russia, it is incredibly important that we get Americans launched from American soil on American vehicles as soon as possible. Paring down the number of competitors will help things along greatly because the funding won’t be split.”
Some COMSTAC members, in a question-and-answer session that followed, emphasized the benefits of competition. “I will confidently predict that if this policy recommendation of a downselect becomes the policy of the United States, you will find that you have saved neither money nor time,” said Jeff Greason, CEO of XCOR Aerospace. La Branche said that this issue was an “ongoing discussion” that will later involve negotiations with the Senate when it crafts its appropriations bill in the coming weeks.
La Branche also brought up another NASA issue with the appropriations bill: the committee’s skepticism about the agency’s exploration plans. “What we don’t have is a compelling destination,” he said, expressing doubts about the utility and level of interest in NASA’s asteroid mission plans beyond its ability to mature some technologies, like solar electric propulsion. “I believe that where we can move forward with an overall strategy, and where our commercial partners can help us, is in the realm of a cislunar mission, or a lunar surface mission, on the way to Mars.”
“Nobody is excited about the Asteroid Retrieval Mission,” he said later at the COMSTAC meeting. “This does not inspire, in my mind.”