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Senate Commerce and House SS&T Committees Approve Space Bills

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 21-Sep-2016
Updated: 21-Sep-2016 10:22 PM

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee and the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee each held markups today of  space-related legislation. The Senate committee approved the 2016 NASA Transition Authorization Act and the INSPIRE Women Act.  The House committee approved the TREAT Astronauts Act.  Congress is only scheduled to be in session for a few more weeks in 2016, but if all parties are sufficiently motivated to reach compromise, there is more than enough time to get the bills to the President's desk before the end of the 114th Congress.

Senate 2016 NASA Transition Authorization Act, S. 3346

Several amendments were adopted to the version of the Senate NASA authorization bill that was introduced last week, S. 3346.  The bill has many wide-ranging provisions, but the main thrust is to provide stability to NASA's human spaceflight program as a presidential transition nears.

The goal is to avoid the type of disruption that happened when President Obama took office and cancelled the George W. Bush-administration's Constellation program.  The goal of that program was to return humans to the surface of the Moon by 2020 and someday send them to Mars.  After bitter negotiations, Congress passed and the President signed the 2010 NASA Authorization Act that set NASA on its current course of developing the Space Launch System (SLS) and Orion crew spacecraft to send humans to orbit Mars in the 2030s and land sometime thereafter.  The current effort rejects the Bush Administration's directive to return humans to the lunar surface (though NASA officials make clear they hope international and/or commercial partners might do so) and instead directs NASA to engage in the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) as a steppingstone to Mars.

The bill officially establishes in law that human exploration of Mars, including potential human habitation on the surface of Mars, is a NASA objective.  It lauds the progress made by the SLS and Orion programs and requires NASA to submit a critical decision plan and strategic framework laying out the details of how it will achieve the goal of landing humans on Mars.  The Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, an industry advocacy group, praised the bill, especially provisions expressing the sense of Congress that the first uncrewed SLS/Orion mission -- Exploration Mission 1 (EM-1) -- should take place in 2018 and the first crew mission, EM-2, in 2021.

The bill is decidedly less enthusiastic about ARM.  ARM has two components -- the Asteroid Redirect Robotic Mission (ARRM) that will send a robotic probe to pluck a boulder from the surface of an asteroid and move it to lunar orbit, and the Asteroid Redirect Crewed Mission (ARCM) where astronauts will visit the boulder and collect samples to return to Earth. The bill questions the value of ARRM compared to its costs and requires NASA to submit a report on alternatives for demonstrating the technologies needed for the Mars goal.  However, it does not require that the program be terminated.

The bill authorizes $19.508 billion for NASA for FY2017.  It does not address funding beyond that one year, which begins October 1.  The total is the same as approved by the House Appropriations Committee in its version of the FY2017 Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations bill, which has not been considered by the House yet.  It is $202 million more than the Senate Appropriations Committee approved.  The money is allocated to NASA's budget accounts in line with the Senate Appropriations CJS bill except that the extra $202 million is added to the Exploration account, which pays for SLS and Orion.

During the markup today, Senator Edward Markey (D-Massachusetts) noted that the bill authorizes less for science and education than they received in FY2016.  Senator Bill Nelson (D-Florida), the top Democrat on the committee and one of the bill's sponsors, replied that the House Appropriations Committee's CJS bill provides more for science and suggested Markey convey his concerns to his former House colleagues apparently in the hope that the appropriations bill would be more generous.   Authorization bills do not provide money at all, they just recommend funding levels.  Only appropriations bills actually give money to agencies like NASA.

The Planetary Society issued a statement praising the bill, especially the requirements for more details on the plans for getting humans to Mars, but it also "urged" NASA's authorizing committees to work closely with appropriators "to ensure that funding for NASA's leading science programs is sufficient to fully carry out the priorities" determined through the National Academies Decadal Survey process.

The bill is bipartisan.  It was introduced by three Republicans and three Democrats and most of the amendments also had bipartisan sponsorship.  The amendments mostly make refinements to existing language, but Senator Cory Gardner (R-Colorado) sponsored one that adds a new section directing NASA essentially to embrace satellite servicing for science and human exploration missions. 

The Gardner amendment requires the NASA Administrator to identify "orbital assets" in both of those mission directorates that could "benefit from satellite-servicing related technologies" and "evaluate opportunities for the private sector to perform such services or advance technical capabilities by leveraging the technologies and techniques developed by NASA programs and other industry programs."

NASA is pursuing the RESTORE-L program, which is focused on demonstrating satellite servicing of a government satellite -- Landsat 7 -- in low Earth orbit (LEO).  The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has its own program for servicing satellites in geosynchronous orbit (GEO) -- Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS).   Meanwhile, two companies are pursuing their own satellite servicing systems -- Orbital ATK and SSL (formerly Space Systems Loral).  In an emailed statement to SpacePolicyOnline.com, Mike Gold, SSL Vice President for Washington Operations, thanked the committee for including the provision.  He called satellite servicing "a critical capability not only for NASA but for commercial activities and national security interests," adding that "leveraging the commercial satellite servicing capabilities that will result" from programs like RESTORE-L and RSGS "represents a commonsense approach to maintain America's space leadership" and create jobs.

One portion of the bill, entitled the "Scott Kelly Human Spaceflight and Exploration Act," includes a section on "Medical Monitoring and Research Relating to Human Space Flight."  It authorizes NASA to provide medical monitoring, diagnosis and treatment of current U.S. government astronauts and former U.S. government astronauts and payload specialists for psychological and medical conditions associated with their spaceflights. The House committee held a hearing on this topic in June and marked up a bill specifically on this issue today, which is discussed below.

House/Senate INSPIRE Women Act, H.R 4755

The Senate committee also approved the Inspiring Next Pioneers, Innovators, Researchers and Explorers (INSPIRE) Women Act, H.R. 4755, without amendment.  The bill already has passed the House.  It requires the NASA Administrator to take steps to encourage women to study STEM education fields.   No money is authorized.

House TREAT Astronauts Act, H.R. 6076

The House committee approved the To Research, Evaluate, Assess and Treat (TREAT) Astronauts Act, H.R. 6076, which was introduced yesterday.  The committee held a hearing in June on the topic of lifetime medical care for astronauts.  Not all former astronauts are guaranteed medical care after they leave government service and NASA also wants to be able to monitor astronauts over their lifetimes to determine any long term psychological and medical effects of spaceflight. 

Committee chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) explained that the bill covers any gaps for former astronauts who are not covered by either the military's TRICARE program or the civilian Federal Employees Claims Act.   Space Subcommittee chairman Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), who represents the district that includes NASA's Johnson Space Center where many former astronauts live, called it a "common sense, fiscally responsible" bill to ensure former astronauts receive support for medical issues associated with their spaceflights.

This House bill and the provision in the Senate NASA authorization bill are tightly written as to who is covered, though the definitions are somewhat different.  Also, the Senate language is a "sense of Congress" provision that NASA "may" provide such medical services, while the House bill is directive, stating that the Administrator "shall" do it and goes into much more detail.


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