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Senate Passes 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 17-Feb-2017
Updated: 18-Feb-2017 12:08 AM

The Senate passed the 2017 NASA Transition Authorization Act today.  The bill is very similar to one that passed the Senate in December as the 114th Congress was coming to an end. The House had completed its legislative business by then so could not act on it and that bill died at the end of the Congress. This new bill, S. 442, represents a compromise with the House, so expectations are high that it will quickly be passed by the House and presented to the President for signature.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who chairs the Space, Science, and Competitiveness subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee, and Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), the top Democrat on the full committee, issued a joint press release along with other bipartisan members of the committee praising the bill for providing stability to NASA during this time of a presidential transition.

The new bill has some changes from the version that passed the Senate in December.  One clarifies that the primary consideration for the acquisition strategy for the commercial crew program is to carry U.S. astronauts to and from the International Space Station (ISS) "safely, reliably, and affordably" and to serve as a crew rescue vehicle.  Another directs NASA to report to Congress on how the Orion spacecraft can fulfill the provision in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act that it be able to serve as a backup to commercial crew, including with use of a launch vehicle other than the Space Launch System. A third is a finding that NASA has not demonstrated to Congress that the cost of the Asteroid Redirect Mission is commensurate with its benefits, a stronger statement than what was in the 2016 bill.  The new bill also has a section on use of Space Act Agreements.

The bill authorizes funding only for FY2017, which is already underway.  The total is $19.508 billion, the same as the amount recommended by the House Appropriations Committee, although allocated differently.  Authorization bills recommend funding levels, but only appropriations bills actually provide funding to government agencies like NASA. Congress has not completed action on the FY2017 appropriations bills.  NASA is currently funded under a Continuing Resolution at its FY2016 funding level, with an exception that funds may be spent on the Space Launch System, Orion, and Exploration Ground Systems programs to keep their schedules on track.

Now that the Senate has passed the bill, action moves to the House.  Three weeks ago, the chairmen of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee and its Space Subcommittee, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Brian Babin (R-TX), urged quick passage of the bill.  The House is in recess next week, but action could come anytime thereafter.


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