Congressional Compromise Nears: NASA’s Immediate Future Gains Clarity

by Chris Gebhardt

NASA’s immediate future appears to be gaining some degree of clarity, at least as far as the House of Representatives and Senate are concerned. With the release of a compromise NASA Authorization bill for FY 2011 that aims to mend the differences between the original House and Senate versions of the Authorization Act, the United States Congress appears close to reaching consensus on NASA’s future before the start of the new Fiscal Year in the United States on Friday (October 1).

The Compromise Bill:

Since initially passing different NASA Authorization acts for FY 2011 in August 2010, the House of Representatives and the Senate appeared to be at impasse regarding the future of the premiere space agency. 

Since, under U.S. law, both bills required reconciliation into one bill – approved then by the House and Senate – before being sent to the President’s desk for approval or veto, a compromise in the bicameral legislature was finally proposed and submitted for review by the House Committee on Science and Technology.

The 168 page compromise bill, released by the House Committee on Science and Technology which is led by Rep. Bart Gordon from the state of Tennessee, stated: “In the 50 years since the establishment of NASA, the arena of space has evolved substantially.

As the uses and users of space continue to expand, the issues and operations in the regions closest to Earth have become increasingly complex, with a growing number of overlaps between civil, commercial, and national security activities. These developments present opportunities and challenges to the space activities of NASA and the United States.”

To this end, the House compromise bill proposed $19 billion in appropriations in FY 2011 for NASA – directly inline with President Obama’s top line request for the space agency. For FY 2012, the House bill called for $19.45 billion… followed by $19.96 billion in FY 2013.

These figures directly match the NASA funding request made by President Obama, despite the fact that all three funding requests and proposed appropriations are below the actual funded level for NASA in FY 2009. However, the proposed decrease in funding from the FY 2009 levels would, in large part, be due to the ramp-down and cessation of the Space Shuttle Program.

Nonetheless, in addition to the overall appropriations, the compromise bill provides $2.67 billion toward the revitalization of NASA’s Space Technology program, with $1.19 billion over the following three years toward Exploration Technology Development.

The bill would also authorize $15 million in each FY from FY 2011 – 2013 for Commercial Reusable Suborbital Research programs designed to support technology development, educational, and scientific activities in addition to fully authorizing the President’s request for Earth science research/programs.

The bill would further call for an increase in authorization over the President’s request for space science. This increase would augment the Explorer and Suborbital programs which currently provide important student education and training opportunities.

Finally, NASA would also receive an increase in the amount of $34.2 million over Obama’s request for each FY 2011-2013 in order to restore funding to the Space Grant, EPSCoR, and Minority University Research & Education (MUREP) programs.

But perhaps the most anticipated part of the proposed NASA budget for FY 2011 are the provisos for manned space exploration – in particular, Congress’s potential support for one additional Space Shuttle flight in June 2011.

In fact, this stipulation appears all but assured to gain mention and support from both the House and Senate in the final Authorization Act that makes it to President Obama’s desk since language for the additional flight was included in the original House and Senate versions of the bill.

As the compromise bill states, “The Administrator shall fly the Launch-On-Need Shuttle mission currently designated in the Shuttle Flight Manifest dated February 28, 2010, to the ISS in fiscal year 2011, but no earlier than June 1, 2011, (unless required earlier by an operations contingency), unless, after review of the results of the assessment required by paragraph (2), and after the determination under paragraph (3)(A), the Administrator determines that the level of risk of flying such mission is unacceptable.”

The bill paragraph 2 would direct Administrator Charlie Bolden to carry out a safety assessment for an alternate means of return to Earth for the final shuttle crew. This is due to the unlikely event that the Orbiter (scheduled at this point to be Atlantis, OV-104) would become damaged during the STS-135 flight.

This safety assessment, already carried out by the NASA Engineering and Safety Center would focus on the safety of a Soyuz crew return – an aspect of the STS-135 flight that has already been incorporated into the mission’s baseline of only four crewmembers.  In fact, STS-135 would mark the first time since STS-6 (Challenger) in April 1983 that a Shuttle was launched with a crew complement fewer than five.

Furthermore, the Human Spaceflight part of the compromise bill would also provide for assured government backup access to the International Space Station in order to ensure the Station’s continued operation and utilization in the event that the commercial companies are unable to fulfill the cargo (and possibly crew) services.

Under the compromise bill, $1.2 billion would be given over the course of three years to commercial cargo and crew development. Should initial commercial cargo services prove successful and reliable, an additional $2.1 billion would be appropriated for follow-on Commercial Resupply Services for further delivery contracts.

Additionally, the bill would give the Administrator the authority to fully fund the proposed Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program if they meet their contracted milestones and are deemed viable.

Nonetheless, the guaranteed government backup would mean the (relatively) immediate start of development of a new Heavy Lift rocket to follow the Space Shuttle.

While the next generation of NASA’s rocket architecture system would serve as a backup to commercial crew and cargo rotation/resupply efforts only, and would not directly compete with commercial on these fronts, the new system would primarily provide direct support for follow-on human space flight activities beyond Low Earth Orbit and would leverage previous investments in Orion, Ares, and the Space Shuttle.

Lastly, the other major part concerning manned space flight would be the approval and funding of the International Space Station through at least 2020. The compromise bill would further mandate the establishment an entity to manage ISS National Laboratory research and provide increased funding to revitalize space life and physical science research and technology on ISS to address primary concerns for human exploration of outer space.

This revitalization would also serve to provide both short-term and long-term societal benefits.

Additionally, a further $150 million would be invested, over three years, into the Robotic Precursor program to NEOs (Near Earth Objects) and Mars – with the express goal of paving the way for eventual manned missions.

UPDATE: House Vote Expected Wednesday:

Despite the positive nature of the compromise bill, and the willingness of the House to discuss a middle-of-the-road scenario for NASA, the United States Senate has made it abundantly clear that they are unwilling to give any ground on the matter.

To this end, it appears that the House will abandon all efforts at a compromise and simply accept the Senate version of NASA’s FY 2011 Authorization act.

Speaking in a statement for the House Committee on Science and Technology, Chairman Bart Gordon of Tennessee stated, “I anticipate that the House will consider the Senate version of the NASA reauthorization on Wednesday.”

While Mr. Gordon maintained his belief that the language of the House compromise bill would better serve NASA, he enumerated several concerns the House Committee still had regarding the Senate bill.

One of these concerns is the unfunded mandate to keep the Space Shuttle Program through the entirety of FY 2011. While this unfunded mandate in no way alludes to the possibility of Shuttle missions beyond STS-135, it would maintain program funding flexibility past the fleet’s retirement in summer 2011.

While Mr. Gordon’s comments are valid, the Senate version – with its unfunded mandate – would provide some needed flexibility to allow NASA to fly STS-135 later in the Fiscal Year than summer 2011 if necessary. However, the monetary consequences of this action would come at the expense of other NASA programs – a consequence Mr. Gordon would sooner avoid by clarifying the language of the Senate bill.

“The Senate bill includes an unfunded mandate to keep the Shuttle program going through the remainder of FY 2011, even after the Shuttle is retired, at a cost of $500 million or more without clarifying where the funds will come from, all but ensuring that other important NASA programs will be cannibalized,” states Mr. Gordon.

Likewise, Mr. Gordon felt that the Senate version of the bill is overly involved in the design of the next generation of NASA rocket architecture. “I am concerned that the Senate bill is overly prescriptive for the design of the follow-on rocket.”

Again, Mr. Gordon felt that the compromise language would best let NASA determine the approach needed for follow-up human spaceflight endeavors.

However, the biggest objection Mr. Gordon seemed to have to the Senate version of the bill is the unspecified timeline for development of a rocket to fill the ‘gap’ left by the retirement of the Space Shuttle fleet.

While the compromise bill provided a timetable for the rocket’s development so it could serve as a backup to the commercial entities, the Senate version provides no such timetable – language Mr. Gordon feels could make NASA completely dependent on commercial entities and/or the Russians for an unspecified number of years.

“The Senate bill does not provide a timetable for a government backup capability, which could make NASA’s access to space completely dependent on commercial providers.  I am hopeful the commercial providers will be successful, but, whereas they have missed contractual cargo milestones thus far, I am wary of being completely dependent on them, because if they fail, we will be dependent on the Russians for longer than absolutely necessary.”

In the end, Mr. Gordon came to the decision that passage of a flawed bill was better then not passing a bill at all.

“For the sake of providing certainty, stability, and clarity to the NASA workforce and larger space community, I felt it was better to consider a flawed bill than no bill at all as the new fiscal year begins.  I will continue to advocate to the Appropriators for the provisions in the Compromise language.”

Related Articles