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House Subcommittee Approves New Version of NASA Bill - No Prohibition on ARM

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 09-Apr-2014
Updated: 11-Apr-2014 06:20 PM

The Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee (SS&T) this morning approved a revised version of a new NASA authorization bill, H.R. 4412.   The text adopted today contains significant differences from what was posted on the committee's website yesterday.  Among the changes for NASA's human spaceflight program: this version does not prohibit spending on development of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) and a requirement is added for an independent analysis of the Mars 2021 flyby mission championed by House SS&T committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX).

The version adopted today is called an "amendment in the nature of a substitute" or a "manager's amendment" that replaces the previous text.  Subcommittee Chairman Steve Palazzo (R-MS) and ranking member Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD) lauded each other for their ability to reach "true bipartisan agreement" on the text, but both agreed that more work needs to be done to "strengthen" the bill before it takes the next step -- markup before the full committee.  No date was announced for full committee markup.  (Not sure what a "markup" is?  See our fact sheet:  What's a Markup? -- Answer's to That and Other Legislative Mysteries.) 

Two sections Palazzo specifically mentioned as in need of more work concern Space Act Agreements and Advanced Booster Competition.  Edwards noted that she wants a bill that covers more years; the funding recommendations in this bill are only for one year (FY2014, already underway).  She also wants more discussion about NASA's education and Earth science activities "and a range of other topics."

The tone of the markup today was completely different from last year, which took place amid intense partisan discord throughout Capitol Hill.  At that time Palazzo and Edwards had completely different bills.  Edwards' bill was rejected on a party-line vote and Palazzo's bill was approved on a party-line vote.   The bill never moved out of committee, however.   Instead, the process is starting anew this year and bipartisanship is the watchword.   Only one dissenting voice was heard at the subcommittee markup today, that of Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who objects to the bill's focus on the goal of landing humans on Mars.   The bill was approved by voice vote, and it did not appear that any "nays" were spoken, so his objections apparently were not sufficient to cause him to vote against the bill.

In their remarks, Palazzo and Edwards highlighted the human spaceflight sections of the bill which require NASA to submit to Congress an "exploration roadmap" that clearly states that the goal of the human spaceflight program is landing people on Mars and outlining the steps to achieve that goal.  Palazzo said the bill "makes absolutely clear that NASA's goal for the human space flight program should be to send humans to Mars.  It is also the Committee's intent to be clear that proposals that cannot be proven essential to a Mars mission be removed from this portfolio."   

That probably is a reference to ARM, which committee Republicans opposed as recently as yesterday's version of this bill.  However, the revised version approved today omits the section that would have prohibited NASA from spending money on developing ARM.  Instead it requires NASA to submit more details about the mission.  Whether or not ARM is essential to sending people to Mars is a matter of opinion.  NASA asserts that ARM is essential to that goal because it will take place in cis-lunar space (between the Earth and Moon), a "proving ground" that is close enough to Earth for astronauts to return in an emergency.

Edwards agreed that Mars is the goal, but her take on the legislation is that it gives NASA the responsibility for "deciding the pathway forward" to get there.   The common denominator is that both Palazzo and Edwards want the exploration roadmap that will define specific capabilities and technologies needed to land people on Mars.  NASA is required to submit the plan within 180 days of when the bill become law.

Rohrabacher disagreed with the goal of landing humans on Mars, at least as it is envisioned in the bill.  He objected to tying the U.S. government space program so closely to such a goal.  He said the odds are that resources will be wasted: "When you try to cross a bridge too far, someone will get soaked" and it will be "the U.S. taxpayer."

Other differences from yesterday's version include the following:

  • The new version requires NASA to contract with an "independent, private systems engineering and technical assistance organization" to provide a technical assessment of the Mars 2021 Flyby mission concept that would send a crew to fly around Mars, after first flying around Venus to get a gravity assist, in 2021 on one of the first SLS flights.  The assessment is due to  NASA and Congress 60 days after the bill is signed into law.  Then, in another 60 days, NASA is required to send Congress an assessment by the NASA Advisory Council whether the mission is in the strategic interests of the United States. 
  • Edwards says in her prepared statement that the termination liability section of the bill no longer protects the four "covered programs" -- SLS. Orion, ISS and JWST -- from termination any differently from other NASA programs:  "These covered programs are no more protected than any other NASA program, nor should they be." [CLARIFICATION:   Edwards was comparing the termination liability section of this bill to what was contained in H.R. 3625, marked up by the committee in December.  The NASA authorization bill considered by the committee last year contained a section on termination liability, but as the year progressed and it became apparent that congressional agreement on a NASA authorization bill would not be achieved soon, the termination liability language was extracted and introduced as a separate bill, H.R. 3625.  Section 2(e) of H.R. 3625 required congressional approval before NASA could terminate a covered program.  H.R. 3625 also did not progress out of committee, however, and now that a new NASA authorization bill is under consideration, the termination liability section has been restored.  The new language is different from what was approved in December.  Among the changes is omission of Section 2(e).]
  • Edwards also says the bill "unequivocally states that safety shall be the highest priority" in selecting and developing commercial crew systems.

Palazzo says in his statement that the bill seeks to limit U.S. dependence on Russia and "allows NASA to better focus its efforts on once more launching American astronauts on American rockers from American soil." He also said it makes clear that SLS and Orion "are top priorities for Congress and the American people" as is the James Webb Space Telescope.

 

 


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