As Europa looks more inviting, one group presses NASA for a mission there

On Thursday, NASA announced a significant discovery about Europa, the large icy moon of Jupiter: astronomers spotted evidence for geysers of water erupting from the moon’s southern polar regions. The discovery may be further proof that the moon has a subsurface ocean of liquid water that could, potentially, harbor life. Moreover, it comes a day after another team of scientists reported the discovery of “clay-like” minerals on Europa’s surface, which could provide the organic building blocks needed for life.

The Planetary Society wasted no time in using the discoveries to lobby for funding for a Europa mission. “We have to explore Europa,” Bill Nye, CEO of the organization, said in a press release Thursday. “It will take a small adjustment to the Planetary Science budget to mount a mission that will have us solving problems that have never been solved before; there will be innovations and economic benefits.”

A Europa orbiter mission, or the “Europa Clipper” concept that would orbit Jupiter but make multiple close flybys of Jupiter, has been a high priority for planetary scientists, but something NASA has not committed to, citing limited budgets. For fiscal year 2013, Congress did set aside $75 million of NASA’s planetary budget for Europa mission studies, and in its FY2014 appropriations bill, the House earmarked an additional $80 million for Europa mission studies, but the total cost of such a mission is likely on the order of $2 billion.

The Planetary Society release does include a statement of support from the biggest Congressional supporter for a Europa mission. “This exciting revelation further solidifies the need for the Flagship Class mission to Europa that the scientific community has been clamoring for, the Planetary Science Decadal Survey has endorsed, and we in Congress have mandated by law,” said Rep. John Culberson (R-TX). “I look forward to working with my colleagues in Congress to ensure that a Europa mission has the full support of the federal government.”

Senate passes amended launch indemnification bill, but time may have already run out

The good news for the commercial launch industry: late Thursday, the Senate passed a three-year extension of the third-party commercial launch indemnification regime, which is due to expire at the end of this year. The Senate passed the extension via unanimous consent, as reported here earlier this week. “The certainty of a three year extension will help the U.S. commercial space industry continue to grow and thrive, both here in Florida and around the country,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL), who sponsored the extension, in a statement yesterday evening.

The bad news, though, is that since the House passed only a one-year extension last week, the Senate’s three-year extension needs to go back to the House for passage there. And, late Thursday, the House adjourned after passing the budget deal announced earlier this week and the fiscal year 2014 defense authorization bill, with no plans to reconvene (except in pro forma sessions) until January 7. With launch indemnification slated to expire at the end of this month, this means either the Senate will have to go back and approve the one-year version the House passed, or wait until the House returns in January, thus creating a lapse in the indemnification regime.

(Update Friday 5:45 pm: a spokesperson for Sen. Nelson emailed Friday afternoon that the most likely course of action for the bill, since the House has adjourned until early January, will be to wait until they return and have them take up the bill. That means that there will be a gap in the launch indemnification regime, which could complicate any commercial launches, particularly by Orbital and SpaceX, planned for early 2014.)

House committee passes amended termination liability bill

After failing to come to an agreement on an amendment during a markup session last week, the House Science Committee took less than ten minutes Wednesday afternoon to approve an amended bill that would block NASA from reserving funds for termination liability for several key programs and also prevent the agency from unilaterally canceling those programs.

After brief statements, the committee approved on voice votes an amendment to HR 3625, then the bill itself. The bill originally prevented NASA from reserving funds for termination liability costs for the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion spacecraft, and International Space Station (ISS), while preventing NASA from terminating prime contracts for those programs without the approval of Congress. The amendment includes the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) to the programs covered by the bill, and makes a number of wording changes to clarify what a “prime contract” is, and to explicitly state that termination liability funds that have been reserved to date for the covered programs “shall be promptly used to make maximum progress in meeting the established goals and milestones of the covered program.”

Proponents of the bill—and there were no opponents of it who spoke during the markup—emphasized that the bill would free up money to be spent on making progress on those programs. “HR 3625 helps accelerate progress on these vital space programs by allowing these programs to spend dollars that have already been appropriated on actual work, rather than withholding these funds on the unlikely chance of program termination,” Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), the bill’s sponsor, said at the markup.

Earlier in the day, at a meeting of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) in Washington, a staffer for another member of Congress expressed support for the bill. “Congress has appropriated, through a very difficult process in the House and Senate, a certain amount of money for a program. The agency should not withhold that money ‘just in case,’” said Mark Dawson, legislative director for Rep. Robert Aderholt (R-AL), a member of the House Appropriations Committee. “They should proceed with the work on the program.” He said the way termination liability had been applied by NASA was “a real problem” for the SLS program in particular, and that Rep. Aderholt supported the bill.

NASA associate administrator Robert Lightfoot, speaking a little later at the COMSTAC meeting, said that NASA’s decision to withhold funds for those programs for termination liability was based on legal and procurement guidance it received, but appeared to welcome the legislation. “We’ll see if we get relief on that,” he said.

Speaking a short time later, though, former NASA deputy administrator Lori Garver subtly criticized the bill’s provision prohibiting NASA from canceling the programs covered by the bill. “In my view, we should not be debating whether or not we should have the ability to terminate a program that is not working in a cost-plus environment,” she said. “That should not be debated. That’s something that we recognize is the way, when your government is funding a program, you have to protect against slips in development.”

JSC to get another new representative as Stockman aims for the Senate

Rep. Steve Stockman (R-TX), whose district includes NASA’s Johnson Space Center, surprised many late Monday when he announced he would challenge incumbent Sen. John Cornyn (R-TX) in next year’s Republican primary. Stockman is considered a long shot to unseat Cornyn—he has just $32,000 in the bank for his campaign, versus $7 million for Cornyn—but his decision does give Cornyn more serious, and more conservative, competition than previously expected.

The decision also means that Stockman won’t be running for reelection for his House seat. Stockman, in his brief time back in Washington (he served a term in Congress in the mid-1990s) he’s served on the House Science Committee and been active on space issues, but has been better known—or, perhaps, infamous—for controversial positions, such as calling for the President’s impeachment. Roll Call reports five Republicans have filed to run for Stockman’s seat, including Chuck Meyer, who advocated for “Space Bonds” to fund NASA’s human spaceflight program during his unsuccessful 2012 campaign for the seat. Thanks to election outcomes and redistricting, JSC has been represented in recent years by Tom DeLay, Nick Lampson, Pete Olson, and, currently, Steve Stockman; by January 2015, another person will have that distinction.

Senate may take up launch indemnification bill today

The Senate may attempt to pass today a version of a commercial launch indemnification bill that the House has already passed, but with a longer time period. According to discussion at working group meetings this morning of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Committee, or COMSTAC (which are taking place as scheduled despite inclement weather that shut down federal government offices in the DC area), the Senate will attempt to “hotline”, or passed via unanimous consent, the bill the House passed last week, but amended to extend indemnification for three years instead of one, as the House bill states. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) introduced a bill last month, S. 1753, that provided a three-year extension; that bill now has 10 co-sponsors, but an effort to pass it by unanimous consent before the Thanksgiving break didn’t work.

If the Senate does pass the House bill with an amended extension period, it would have to go back to the House for approval again. The House plans to adjourn at the end of this week until after January 1, thus it would have to take up the bill again this week. If that doesn’t work, the Senate would likely have to accept a one-year extension and seek a longer extension next year.

The House astrobiology hearing: remarkable or mostly harmless?

On Wednesday, the full House Science Committee held a hearing on “Astrobiology: Search for Biosignatures in our Solar System and Beyond.” The hearing got a degree of critical attention beforehand, with some questioning if this was the best use of the committee’s, or the House’s, time. “No wonder the American people think this Republican Congress is from another planet – they’re more interested in life in space than Americans’ lives,” a spokesperson for the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) said in a statement that contrasted the hearing with other issues the DCCC felt the House was ignoring. (While the DCCC may have felt that way, that did not dissuade Democratic members of the science committee from participating in the hearing.)

After the hearing, the perception of the hearing’s value shifted, with some commending the House Science Committee for devoting time to astrobiology. “Congress Just Held a Remarkable Two-Hour Hearing on Aliens,” proclaimed io9, a publication primarily devoted to science fiction, calling the hearing (which actually lasted about 90 minutes, not two hours) “a refreshingly pro-science move.” Gizmodo, io9′s corporate sibling that focuses primarily on technology, was similarly enthused: “You must watch the US Congress’ hearing on alien life—it’s so good.” And from Discovery.com: “On Wednesday, something remarkable happened at Capitol Hill. In a special hearing, lawmakers of the House Science Committee discussed the search for extraterrestrial life with three experts for 2 hours.”

But, just as the criticism of the hearing may have been overblown, the pendulum swung too far in the other direction after the hearing. Members of both parties remarked how they found the topic exciting, and asked for its implications in areas ranging from STEM education to technology spinoffs to international cooperation. However, observational bias was also playing a role: just over a dozen of the committee’s 40 members participated in the hearing, some of whom arrived late and/or left early. That’s not uncommon for a hearing by any means, given the slate of other hearings and meetings taking place simultaneously, but the impression that some of the coverage provided—a full committee sitting in rapt attention for two hours—is a false one. There were also some notable absences, like Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), ranking member of the committee’s space subcommittee; and Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI), a former committee chairman who lost out to Lamar Smith (R-TX) in the race to chair the committee in this Congress. Committee vice-chairman Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) attended part of the hearing, but posed no questions to the witnesses.

It’s also unclear how the committee’s interest in astrobiology, at least among those who participated in the hearing, would translate into policy that would benefit research in the field. “What can we, as members of Congress, do to expedite the process” for finding evidence of life beyond Earth, Smith asked during the hearing. “I have a hunch part of the answer is going to be funding.” And, indeed, one of the witnesses, Mary Voytek, NASA senior scientist for astrobiology, called for “continued support” but acknowledged that “funding is tough.” The House Science Committee doesn’t appropriate funding, although its proposed NASA authorization bill would authorize $30 million in each of fiscal years 2014 and 2015 for NASA’s astrobiology institute and call on National Academies to develop an astrobiology strategy. That bill, though, has not made progress since the committee approved it over the summer.

There was one interesting item in the hearing that much of the other coverage of the hearing missed: a greater openness by Congress—or, at least, leadership of the Science Committee—to federal funding of projects in the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI), two decades after Congress killed NASA’s last major SETI effort, the High Resolution Microwave Survey. “It would be great to repair this divorce between the search for microbial and intelligent life by including a more robust program on SETI,” Steven Dick, who holds the Baruch S. Blumberg Chair of Astrobiology at the Library of Congress, said. “I think there’s more interest today and more possibilities today with the discovery of all these exoplanets” to support SETI research, Smith responded.

The hearing, though, ended without providing any clear policy direction regarding NASA’s astrobiology program or funding for it. The committee’s leadership didn’t even bother with a post-hearing press release about the hearing, although the Democratic caucus did issue one that summarized the comments of the witnesses and ranking member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), who only briefly touched on policy: “I would be remiss were I not to make note that continuing to provide adequate funding to NASA’s science programs is of critical importance if we are to continue to make progress in astrobiology as well as other important scientific fields.”

“I think you have enlightened us all, and we look forward to staying in touch with you about the issues involved,” Smith said at the conclusion of the hearing. Getting enlightened on a topic is rarely a waste of time, but at the same time doesn’t necessarily represent a science policy breakthrough.

Committee delays consideration of termination liability bill until next week

Despite declared bipartisan support for a bill that would relive NASA of the requirement to withhold funds on key projects as a hedge against payout if they’re cancelled, the House Science Committee delayed markup of that bill on Thursday until next week. As discussed here earlier this week, HR 3625 would require NASA not to withhold funds for termination liability for the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion, and International Space Station; the bill would also prevent NASA from canceling those programs unless a future law directed NASA to do so. Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), whose district includes NASA Marshall Space Flight Center, introduced the bill earlier this week and collected 15 co-sponsors, both Republicans and Democrats.

Despite the support, the bill stumbled during the Science Committee’s markup session Thursday morning. Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) said in his opening statement that Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) had an amendment for the bill. He did not disclose what the amendment was about but it’s widely believed to try any include the James Webb Space Telescope in the “covered programs” of the bill, giving it the same protection from cancellation and maintaining termination liability reserves as the SLS, Orion, and ISS. However, when HR 3625 came up for consideration as the last of four bills of the day, it was clear that Brooks and Edwards were still discussing the proposed amendment, and after some delay Smith decided to recess the markup until 2 pm Tuesday to allow them to work out whatever differences they have about the proposed amendment. With House leadership planning to adjourn as soon as the end of next week, it was unlikely the bill would be considered by the full House before January even if the committee approved it yesterday.

As budget endgame approaches, scientists make another lobbying push

With a week to go, House and Senate budget negotiators are approaching a deal to set spending levels for fiscal year 2014 and avoid another round of sequestration. POLITICO reported Thursday night that the lead negotiatiors, Rep. Paul Ryan (R-WI) and Sen. Patty Murray (D-WA), are only “a few billion dollars apart” on a deal, with a deadline of December 13. Murray and Ryan have reported found ways to raise overall discretionary spending from $967 billion to “near” $1 trillion through alternative spending reductions and the addition of revenue through fees (as opposed to taxes) while maintaining deficit reduction targets. If a budget deal is reached, those spending levels in the budget deal will go to appropriators to craft spending bills.

With a deal in sight, one group of scientists is asking its members to push for increased discretionary spending in it. “We have recently heard from the House Majority Leader’s staff that now is the time to raise our voices to support ending the sequester and reinvesting in crucial discretionary programs like those in basic research,” wrote the American Astronomical Society (AAS) in a notice to its members Wednesday. The AAS asked its members to contact their members to press for increased R&D spending in any final budget deal. “Right now, the clearest message we can send (alongside many partners) is that investments in discretionary programs like basic research, far from being drivers of our debt, are crucial for producing the long-term economic growth that will help us address our debt.”

The president isn’t directly involved in the budget deal, but The Planetary Society has a request for him: increase NASA’s budget for planetary science. “Mr. President: we strongly recommend that you make sure that funding for the planetary science program is at least $1.5 billion dollars per year,” wrote Bill Nye, CEO of the organization, in an open letter to the President published Thursday. It was unclear if the society was referring to the FY 2014 appropriations awaiting the outcome of the budget deal, and/or the FY15 budget proposal that the administration will release early next year.

House bill would free up termination liability funds for NASA programs

The House Science Committee is scheduled to mark up several bills in a session this morning, including HR 3625. That bill, formally introduced on Monday by Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL), would direct NASA not to reserve funds for ongoing programs, in particular the Space Launch System (SLS) rocket and Orion spacecraft, to cover termination liability costs should those programs be cancelled. “It is the intent of Congress that funds authorized to be appropriated for covered programs be applied in meeting established technical goals and schedule milestones,” the legislation states. It would also prevent NASA from terminating for convenience any prime contract for “covered programs” in the bill unless authorized by a future law. (The only program beyond SLS and Orion covered by the bill is the International Space Station.)

The issue of termination liability costs has been an issue for some time for Brooks, whose district includes NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center. “Withholding scarce funds for termination liability slows development and hence increases the total cost of a project,” he said in a press release Wednesday about the bill. He cited NASA reports that more than $500 million is being withheld among those three programs to cover termination liability costs, funds he says “would otherwise be used to timely complete these scientific efforts.”

This is not the first time that the House has attempted to address this issue in recent months. The NASA authorization bill the committee approved in July, HR 2687, included a section almost identical to the current bill forbidding NASA to withhold funds for termination liability for SLS, Orion, and ISS. The fact that the committee is willing to take up this provision as a standalone bill suggests diminishing prospects for passage of an overall NASA authorization bill any time soon.

A House hearing on astrobiology seems alien to some

Later this morning, the full House Science Committee will hold a hearing on “Astrobiology: Search for Biosignatures in our Solar System and Beyond.” The hearing is primarily an exploratory and informational one, designed to collect information on the state of astrobiology research. The closest the hearing may come to policy issues is a statement in the hearing charter about assessing “existing and planned astrobiology research strategies and roadmaps.”

Such hearings are not that unusual: the committee’s space subcommittee held a hearing on exoplanets earlier this year, for example, and the hearing may allow some discussion on whether NASA is devoting the proper funding to astrobiology research. But the idea of holding a hearing on the potential for extraterrestrial life seems, to some, to be a case of misplaced priorities. “With only seven workdays left between now and the end of the first session of the 113th Congress, a full House committee has found time to hold a hearing on extraterrestrial life,” complained The Huffington Post in an article yesterday.

One of the members of the committee, Rep. Suzanne Bonamici (D-OR), defended the committee’s decision to discuss astrobiology. “If members of Congress were occupying floor time with discussions of extraterrestrial life, that would be a problem,” she told The Oregonian. Some might argue that such discussions could actually be an improvement on the current level of debate on Capitol Hill.