Congress, NASA

Bolden skeptical about prospects for NASA authorization bill this year

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said Wednesday he is not optimistic that Congress will pass a NASA authorization bill this year, and expects to start the 2015 fiscal year on a continuing resolution (CR).

Bolden, speaking at a meeting of the NASA Advisory Council (NAC) at the Langley Research Center in Virginia, said he was more optimistic about the prospects of an authorization bill last month, when the House passed its version of the legislation on a 401-2 vote. “That was not lost on me,” he said of the margin of passage. “My naïveté caused me to believe that, boy, things are going to change.”

However, the Senate has yet to take up the House bill or even introduce its own version. “They have talked off and on about an authorization bill, but we don’t see any serious movement there right now,” he said, adding that Congress was about to go on its summer recess and not return until early September. “I am not optimistic that we will get an authorization bill until 2015.”

On the appropriations side, Bolden said that that the increase in funding offered in the House bill over the administration’s request “was a very pleasant surprise for all of us.” He added that he was “disappointed” the bill didn’t fully fund commercial crew, offering $785 million versus the requested $848 million, “but we’ll take it.” He added he was also concerned about cuts in the bill in the request for Space Technology.

The Senate’s version of the appropriations bill provides similar funding levels, but has stalled out on the Senate floor because of unrelated issues. “There’s a strong possibility that the federal government could be funded through a continuing resolution for a period of time during fiscal year 2015,” he said. (Reports suggest that a CR would fund the government at least past the November elections.)

That’s a setback after the progress made though last month indicated a chance the appropriations would become law before the fiscal year begins on October 1. “Once again, we’ve snatched defeat from the jaws of victory,” Bolden said. “Everybody was really excited and looking forward to a really healthy budget.”

Bolden also offered a bit of news about the ongoing review of proposals submitted to the next round of the commercial crew program, Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap). “Our progress on commercial crew source selection deliberations has been evidently better than we anticipated,” he said. He said that those awards would come “much sooner than later this year,” but was not more specific. NASA officials have generally said over the last few months that the CCtCap contract or contracts would be announced in August or September.

30 comments to Bolden skeptical about prospects for NASA authorization bill this year

  • Vladislaw

    If they are under a continuing resolution that would allow them to ignore Senator Shelby’s games?

    • Coastal Ron

      Unfortunately no, since NASA will have to operate at FY14 levels during a continuing resolution, and that is heavily influenced by Shelby.

      In general, if Congress can’t pass a bill before the elections then that just gives more motivation to “vote the do-nothing bums out!”

    • Henry Vanderbilt

      Are you asking would a CR allow NASA to ignore Senator Shelby’s wishes across the board, or to ignore the specific Commercial Crew & Cargo cost-plus-accounting poison-pill he sponsored?

      As Coastal Ron points out, the former would be politically unwise, as Shelby remains the top-ranking Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee, with (at this point) a better than even chance of being in overall charge of the Committee after this November’s elections.

      As for ignoring that specific poison-pill clause (the question I think you were asking), yes, NASA probably can, at least for the next few months, and possibly permanently.

      Legally, the clause is part of the Report language accompanying the Senate version of the FY’15 CJS (NASA) Appropriation – the Senate CJS Appropriation which of course won’t have passed into law yet if there’s a CR. (And of course Report language is an expression of intent by the legislators, not actual law.)

      Politically (more important, given Shelby’s clout) the clause probably won’t survive into whatever post-election CR followup law(s) happen. Public and press attention to the poison-pill aroused some Senate opposition to it, including on Appropriations. The Senate more often than not tends to operate on unanimous consent, and that will no longer likely be present on this point when the time comes.

      Even if the clause does survive, it’s likely to be more because of haste in the process than unanimous lack of opposition. The anti poison-pill campaign earlier this summer probably gave NASA enough political cover to give the clause no more than polite lip-service in that event. No guarantees, of course – politics can be messy and unpredictable.

      • Vladislaw

        Henry Vanderbilt wrote:

        “or to ignore the specific Commercial Crew & Cargo cost-plus-accounting poison-pill he sponsored?”

        I should have been more specific, you made the correct assumption. Thanks for the info.

  • Egad

    Very slightly apropos of budgetary matters, let us note that today marks the first anniversary of the completion of the SLS PDR. Still no KDP-C, which might illuminate future funding needs. (But don’t count on it.)

    http://www.nasa.gov/press/2013/august/nasas-space-launch-system-completes-preliminary-design-review/

    This review concludes the initial design and technology development phase. The next milestone in the continuing verification process is Key Decision Point-C, in which NASA will grant the program authority to move from formulation to implementation.

    http://www.gao.gov/assets/670/664969.pdf

    NASA delayed the SLS key decision point C decision from October 2013 to at least July 2014, as the agency considered future plans for the program.

    • josh

      this is a disaster in the making, just like ares 1 was. pretty soon there will be a ‘tiger team’ that will delay the inevitable: cancellation before it ever makes it close to the launch pad. sls block one is now internally scheduled to launch in late 2018. and reading this further delays are undoubtedly coming.

  • Hiram

    The lack of NASA authorization signifies a lack of congressional agreement, or even concern, about long range (as in, multi-year) plans for the agency. That’s what an authorization bill defines. Of course, the last authorization bill defined the minimum capability requirements of the SLS, but not what it would actually do. Here we are, three years later, and Congress is still not willing to tell us what it should be doing.

    Of course, even the House version of the bill doesn’t tell us that, but mainly refers back to the 2010 bill. Nonetheless, it calls for a “what the hell are we doing, anyway” roadmap from NASA about human spaceflight, which one would like to believe might include SLS, and calls for a school-based contest for kids to name it, whatever it is.

    So if I were in the Senate, I’d look back at the House version, and say, what’s the big deal? Aside from directing others to provide direction, Congress isn’t willing to offer any itself. Of course, the White House isn’t providing any real direction either, so at least one can’t complain about administrative inconsistency.

    • John Malkin

      And yet…

      Jeff Foust (@jeff_foust)

      7/31/14, 8:20 AM
      Friedensen: have slots for 11 CubeSats on SLS EM-1 launch in 2017; integration and launch costs will be paid by SLS program. #sbag11

      How much is integration? A few hundred, thousand or million. Can we do something more useful with the money that would help HSF goals?

      • Henry Vanderbilt

        Cubesats on SLS is pretty obviously one more small element of the wide-front effort to build a constituency, any constituency, for the beast. As such, no, I would not count on diverting the funding to something less hilariously impractical than adding a cubesat dispenser to SLS.

      • Hiram

        That’s indeed hilarious. Let’s see. This is supposed to encourage Cubesat developers to think about SLS as a future launch option? You know, EM-1 as a loss-leader for the Cubesat community. Of course, it’s a dandy launcher for that job, if only you can think of something to fill the other 99.99% of it. And you bring 11 more teams in to the launch logistics process.

        No, wait. HEOMD should be offering launch slots for space cremation dust. Imagine the millions of people for whom a tablespoon of their remains could get shipped up on one of those things. At least that kind of payload won’t affect launch logistics and planning.

        Boy, the creative thought that goes into fabricating a business case for SLS. Of course, Cubesats may be the only thing NASA can afford to fly after building one of these rockets. Maybe we could send one to Europa?

        • Dick Eagleson

          Bravo, sir!

        • I agree, but actually, I kinda like the cremation dust idea. If that many people coughed up (so to speak) for this, maybe you could actually launch an SLS at a profit — but figuring how many teaspoons of ash would fit into an SLS payload and mass and volume is far beyond the aerithmetic skills I’m willing to invest in this proposition. For the record, distributing some of my ashes in space is in my Last Will and Testimate — so sign me up!

          – Donald

        • Hiram

          I guess we can look at SLS as something to die for!

          Let’s do the math. 1 tablespoon is about 10 grams. So SLS, lifting 70 mT to LEO, could (including the very lightweight urns to keep the ashes separate — um, we want them?) makes for about 7 million tablespoons. There are about 2.5 million deaths per year in the U.S.. So if EVERYONE did it, we’d need an SLS launch rate of one every 2-3 years. Hey, that fits!! We could throw a piece of everyone into space. Talk about serving the taxpayer …

    • Henry Vanderbilt

      Hiram – I would not say there’s a lack of Congressional concern over a long-range plan for NASA.

      Lack of Congressional consensus, yes – in large part because a significant Congressional faction insists NASA go on doing things the same old way, but isn’t willing to deal with the fact that if actual results are wanted the same old way implies massively more funding. (The alternative of course is that NASA change their ways in a more cost-effective direction and accomplish interesting things on something closer to the existing budget.)

      As for that House Auth mandate to come up with a roadmap, damn right such a roadmap would include SLS – because the House Auth language mandates that the roadmap define SLS as necessary. Just as well if that language doesn’t get passed this year.

      Until there’s more consensus what NASA should look like ten years from now – traditional cost-plus micromanagement, or Commercial Cargo/Crew model? – we’re not likely to see a useful roadmap emerge.

      • Hiram

        “As for that House Auth mandate to come up with a roadmap, damn right such a roadmap would include SLS – because the House Auth language mandates that the roadmap define SLS as necessary.”

        But that language never tells us what SLS is necessary for.

        “It is the policy of the United States that NASA develop a Space Launch System as a followon to the Space Shuttle that can access cis-lunar space and the regions of space beyond low-Earth orbit in order to enable the United States to participate in global efforts to access and develop this increasingly strategic region.”

        Deep, eh?

        No, seriously. If SLS is going to get built, I want to know exactly what Congress is committing us to. If it turns out that SLS is a poor way of achieving that commitment, then let’s have it out. Let’s lay it on the line. Either SLS meets goals, or it doesn’t. If there are no goals, then there is nothing to meet.

        No, except in a few congressional districts, there is very little congressional concern about a long-range plan for NASA. Well, beyond that NASA SHALL DO GREAT THINGS THAT MAKE THE NATION PROUD! (Say that in a deep, booming voice.) Congress is asking NASA to come up with a plan for what NASA should do. That’s nuts. Congress should ask NASA for implementation plans once it decides what it should do, ideally with smarts provided by NASA. But you don’t turn over national policy development, answering to what national needs are served, to an agency of engineers and scientists. Sorry, but if Congress cared about human space flight, they’d be all over NASA about what it ought to look like, and what made it important. Instead, Congress chooses to wash it’s hands of any such decision.

        • Hiram: Congress should . . . [decide] what it should do

          Isn’t NASA an executive agency? Isn’t this the President’s job? Isn’t it Congresses job to decide whether to fund what the President proposes? Letting Congress decide is how we get things like the SLS. Maybe President’s ARM is a complete waste of money (no irony intended), but if so, at least it is a relatively cheap waste of money compared to the SLS. I submit that the President’s original plan for NASA was a good one and that it was Congress that f***ed it up, and things like ARM are the Administrations response to all they money they’d planned to have for deep space technology development and commercial space transportation being sucked into the SLS black hole.

          – Donald

          • Hiram

            “Isn’t NASA an executive agency? Isn’t this the President’s job? Isn’t it Congresses job to decide whether to fund what the President proposes?”

            Your point is a good one. For individual projects, yes, it is Congress’ responsibility to fund what the President proposes. (SLS is a daft exception, of course.) But for top level goals, Congressional perspective matters. Is human spaceflight important because colonization of the solar system is important? If so, why? What national needs are served? What is important to the nation? Sorry, but putting human footprints on Mars are not, in and of itself, important to the nation. There has to be some greater context. This is what Authorization bills are supposed to do — put big projects in a national needs context such that their value transcends one year of appropriation.

            I will agree with you that this President (and most of his predecessors) have put little effort into articulating how human space flight meets national needs. GWB’s “Vision for Exploration” was a nice effort, and exactly what we need to see more of, though GWB walked away from that effort pretty quickly when it descended into the pit of Constellationism.

            “Maybe President’s ARM is a complete waste of money (no irony intended), but if so, at least it is a relatively cheap waste of money compared to the SLS.”

            Let’s see. We’re supposed to feel good about that? If we’re going to waste money, we should pat ourselves on the back that it’s not a lot?

        • E.P. Grondine

          Hi Hiram –

          “If SLS is going to get built, I want to know exactly what Congress is committing us to.”

          That one is easy:

          “can access cis-lunar space and the regions of space beyond low-Earth orbit in order to enable the United States to participate in global efforts to access and develop this increasingly strategic region.”

          I hope this clears things up for you.

  • By the way, we have a new Space Access Update out that covers these issues and a few others too.

    http://www.space-access.org/updates/sau136.html

    There are some unconventional thoughts on where ULA should go next as well, plus a word or two about sole-sourcing gone way overboard in the SLS program.

    Henry Vanderbilt
    Space Access Society

  • Crash Davis

    “By the way, we have a new Space Access Update out that covers these issues and a few others too.”

    Please, another useless, clueless, delusional Newspace organization aka Commercial Spaceflight Federation, National Space Society, L5, Tea Party in Space, etc etc etc. Stop wasting your time and money.

      • Vladislaw

        Eric saying the SLS is a fine rocket and the only problem is NASA needs another 8 billion a year in funding.

        Part of what makes a rocket “fine” is that it is cost effective enought that you can actually fly it. SLS and MPCV is so freakin’ expensive it borders on insanity.

        No Eric a rocket that flys every 2-4 years and tosses 3 billion in hardware away after a flight to LEO is not a fine rocket. It is a pork rocket or as they said in Alaska, a bridge to nowhere.

        • Vladislaw, as someone who has actually discussed these issues directly with Eric Berger, I can tell you quite unequivocably that he does not think “SLS is a fine rocket”

          See these sentences in his article at http://blog.chron.com/sciguy/2014/07/nasas-asteroid-mission-takes-a-beating/ to which Neil refers: “The reality is that NASA came to ARM because with its current budget it can’t afford to do anything else. That’s reality we either live with, we give NASA a lot more money to actually use the SLS and do something meaningful like return to the moon or Mars, or we change NASA’s strategy.” Notice highlighted in red the phrase “or we change NASA’s strategy” that is a link to another article he wrote that mentions Charles Miller’s commercial launcher alternative to SLS also supported by Chris Kraft (and which I also cover extensively in The Plundering of NASA The Plundering of NASA)

          • Vladislaw

            My apologies if I misread it, I have reread my links for his articles and I can not even find that line anymore in any of the articles. I directly quoted it in the comments sections and I can not even find that comment either. Must be getting old and “spaced” it out.

            Again my apologies, as it did jump out at me enough though that I did comment on it several blogs.

      • Egad

        See also

        http://www.spacepolicyonline.com/news/future-of-nasas-human-spaceflight-program-dominates-nac-meeting

        At the top level, the response today was the same – that NASA is developing a plan that is not executable. Some members said they want to know what NASA can do with the money it can reasonably expect, while others wanted a realistic assessment of what it will actually cost to achieve the goal of getting people to Mars by the 2030s. Tom Young said he felt that “we are collectively perpetrating a fraud” by pretending the program is executable. He said he worries that the country will spend $160 billion on human spaceflight over the next 20 years and be only “negligibly closer” to landing humans on Mars.

        Indeed.

        • Henry Vanderbilt

          Yup. Sooner or later, someone respectable can’t help themself and says out loud what everyone’s been thinking: “Damn, the Emperor is buck naked!” Next thing you know, there’s a preference cascade and everything changes. Maybe sooner than we’d thought, bye bye, SLS.

    • Dear Crash,

      As Egad notes above from Marcia S. Smith article ( http://www.spacepolicyonline.com/news/future-of-nasas-human-spaceflight-program-dominates-nac-meeting ), Tom Young of the NASA Advisory Council and former Director of Goddard Spaceflight Center just stated about SLS, “We are collectively perpetrating a fraud”

      Given this fact, it appears that someone is indeed “clueless” and it is not the people on our side. In fact, a more apt description of those who refuse to accept the evidence (whether they like or not) is “self-delusional”

    • Henry Vanderbilt

      L5? That takes me back! You’re dating yourself though, “Crash”. Definitely not a twenty-something!

      As for “clueless”, well, the dinosaurs probably thought those inconsequential little mammals were clueless too. I don’t speak for the rest, but Space Access has been talking about the problems that led to the current Exploration quagmire for twenty years now. We’ve been pushing the solutions too. People are finally starting to listen, and change is beginning to happen.

      Me, I’m much too polite to call dinosaurs “clueless”. Y’all sure do seem nervous lately though!

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