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Key Congressional Space Leaders Applaud NRC Human Spaceflight Report

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 05-Jun-2014
Updated: 05-Jun-2014 01:27 AM

Key members of Congress who oversee NASA are responding favorably to the National Research Council's (NRC) new report on the future of the human spaceflight program.

Congress directed NASA to contract with the NRC to conduct the study in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act.  The language included in that law requiring the study is attributed to Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) and then-Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) who has since retired.

Senator Nelson released a statement saying that the report is an "affirmation that a mission to Mars is a go," but "as the report points out, we'll have to give NASA sufficient resources to get this done."  Nelson, who flew on the space shuttle in 1986 when he was a Congressman, is a strong supporter of NASA's human spaceflight program.

Across Capitol Hill, House Science, Space and Technology (SS&T) Committee chairman Lamar Smith (R-TX) used the report's release as another opportunity to lambast the Obama Administration's plan, especially the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM).   The NRC report found that ARM has failed to win support in Congress or the scientific community.   Smith concurs with that sentiment, calling it a "mission without a realistic budget, without a destination, and without a certain launch date."  The House SS&T committee approved a new NASA authorization act (H.R. 4412) in April that would require NASA to develop a Human Exploration Roadmap.    Smith's statement said that "Congress should provide NASA with guidance and funding priorities that reflect our current budget reality while allowing them to develop an inspirational human spaceflight mission."  Smith supports the Mars Flyby 2021 concept that would send astronauts to flyby (not orbit or land on) Mars in 2021 after receiving a gravity assist from Venus.  The NRC report did not assess that mission.

House SS&T Democrats also issued a statement.  Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX), the top Democrat on the full committee, called the NRC report a "wake up call" to Congress and the Administration: "Their report is clear -- we are not going to have a human space exploration program worthy of this great nation if we continue down the current path of failing to provide the resources needed to make real progress and failing to embrace a clear goal and a pathway to achieving that goal."  She commended the authors of the report and said she looks forward to working with "colleagues in Congress and the Administration to establish a sustainable and vital human space exploration program."    Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), the top Democrat on the Space Subcommittee, said she was "heartened" by the report and that she would take on as a challenge the report's finding that the public is "inattentive to space exploration."   Johnson and Edwards, like Smith, applauded the language in the committee's bill requiring the Human Exploration Roadmap.  Edwards said she is convinced the next generation of Americans "only needs a spark to ignite the flood of innovation that accompanies the pursuit of a major goal.  The inspiration of a clear pathway for human space exploration will provide that spark."

In many years, all those statements about providing NASA with the needed funding might ring hollow.  This year, though, the House already has passed the appropriations bill that funds NASA with a substantial increase ($435 million) above what the President requested.  The Senate Appropriations Committee is poised to approve a similar increase in its companion bill later today (it was marked up at subcommittee level on Tuesday).  No agency can bank on getting more money than requested year after year, but for this year, at least, Congress seems to be backing up its policy pronouncements with actual money.  That being said, all of the members issuing press releases so far sit on authorization, not appropriation committees.  (Not sure of the difference between an authorization and an appropriation?  See SpacePolicyOnline.com's "What's a Markup?" fact sheet.)  It will be interesting to see if Senator Barbara Mikulski (D-MD) or Senator Richard Shelby (R-AL), chair and vice-chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee, reference the NRC report during the markup, which begins at 10:00 am ET.


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