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House To Vote on 2017 NASA Authorization Act Tomorrow - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 26-Feb-2017
Updated: 27-Feb-2017 09:04 AM

The House is scheduled to vote on the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 tomorrow (Monday).  The bill, S. 442, passed the Senate on February 17.  [UPDATE, February 27:  The bill apparently has been pulled from consideration today.]

The bill is being brought up under a procedure called suspension of the rules.  Under the suspension calendar, two-thirds (instead of a simple majority) of the House must vote in favor for the bill to pass.  It is used for non-controversial legislation that is expected to easily achieve that margin.

The bill is very similar to a version that passed the Senate in December, but after the House had completed its legislative business for the year so action could not be completed before the end of the 114th Congress.  Hence, this new, slightly revised version is now under consideration in the 115th Congress.

The overall goal of the 145-page bill is to codify congressional intent with regard to NASA's future at a time of a presidential transition.  NASA's supporters in Congress want to avoid the type of disruption that occurred when President Obama took office and cancelled the Constellation program initiated by President George W. Bush to return astronauts to the surface of the Moon by 2020.   Intense bipartisan congressional backlash led to the 2010 NASA Authorization Act that directed the Administration to proceed with building a new, large rocket and crew spacecraft -- the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion -- to send astronauts beyond low Earth orbit, continuing that part of the Constellation program.  Obama and Congress agreed that the long term goal was to send humans to Mars, but not on whether returning them to the lunar surface was a necessary prerequisite.

That debate continues and S. 442 does not resolve it. The bill requires NASA to submit a "human exploration roadmap" laying out the steps "from low Earth orbit to the surface of Mars and beyond considering potential interim destinations such as cis-lunar space and the moons of Mars" including the potential for partnerships with the private sector and other countries.  It also requires NASA to contract with an independent organization for a study of a Mars human space flight to be launched in 2033.

The Obama Administration substituted the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) as a steppingstone to Mars in lieu of lunar surface missions.  ARM has two components:  the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM) that would send a robotic spacecraft to an asteroid, pluck a boulder from its surface and move it to lunar orbit; and the Asteroid Redirect Crewed Mission (ARCM) where a crew in an Orion spacecraft would visit the boulder and collect samples.   ARM has received little support in Congress, but Congress has not  terminated the program, either.   S. 442 similarly does not require that it be terminated, but states that NASA has not made a convincing case that ARRM's cost  is worth the benefits.  It requires an analysis of alternatives for demonstrating technologies and capabilities needed for sending humans to Mars.

The bill also strongly supports the International Space Station, as well as NASA aeronautics, space technology, and space science activities.  It is silent on earth science, one of the few areas of partisan discord on Capitol Hill with regard to NASA.  To reach agreement on the overall bill, the topic is simply ignored.

The bill authorizes funding only for FY2017, which is already underway.  The total amount is $19.508 billion, the same as recommended by the House Appropriations Committee, although allocated differently.  Authorization bills like S. 442 do not actually provide any money to agencies, but only make recommendations.  Agencies receive money only through appropriations bills. Congress has not completed action on FY2017 appropriations for NASA or other government agencies, which are operating under a Continuing Resolution until April 28, 2017. 

The House meets for legislative business at 2:00 pm ET tomorrow, with votes postponed until 6:00 pm ET.  The NASA bill is one of six that will be considered under suspension.


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