FYI: The AIP Bulletin of Science Policy News

Sending a Message to the Next President: NASA Legislation Enacted

Richard M. Jones
Number 101 - October 16, 2008  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

Adjust text size enlarge text shrink text    |    Print this pagePrint this page    |     Bookmark and Share     |    rss feed for FYI

"H.R. 6063 is a fiscally responsible measure that sends a strong message to the next Administration that Congress believes that investing in a balanced NASA program of science, aeronautics, and human spaceflight and exploration is important and worthy of the nation's support." So said House Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon (D-TN) about the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2008, which was signed into law this morning by President Bush..

This bill was introduced by House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics Chairman Mark Udall (D-CO) in May. As an authorization bill, H.R. 6063 sets policy and FY 2009 spending ceilings. It does not provide funding, which is allocated by separate appropriations legislation. The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a FY 2009 funding bill which includes $17.8 billion for NASA. The counterpart House bill was not considered by its full Appropriations Committee.

H.R. 6063 authorizes $20.2 billion for NASA, which includes an additional $1 billion to speed development of the Constellation launch system to replace the aging space shuttle. Since Congress and the next Administration will likely fund the agency at a lower level than this authorization, the 16,000 word bill will have a greater impact as a policy document setting direction in areas such as science, the space station, the space shuttle, and the dissemination of research results. This FYI will highlight selections from the bill.

Congress outlined its vision for NASA in an initial section of the bill entitled Findings, among which are the following statements:

"Human and robotic exploration of the solar system will be a significant long-term undertaking of humanity in the 21st century and beyond, and it is in the national interest that the United States should assume a leadership role in a cooperative international exploration initiative."

"Developing United States human space flight capabilities to allow independent American access to the International Space Station, and to explore beyond low Earth orbit, is a strategically important national imperative, and all prudent steps should thus be taken to bring the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and Ares I Crew Launch Vehicle to full operational capability as soon as possible and to ensure the effective development of a United States heavy lift launch capability for missions beyond low Earth orbit."

"NASA's scientific research activities have contributed much to the advancement of knowledge, provided societal benefits, and helped train the next generation of scientists and engineers, and those activities should continue to be an important priority."

"NASA, through its pursuit of challenging and relevant activities, can provide an important stimulus to the next generation to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics."

Title II of this legislation is devoted to Earth Science, and describes the program's goals (in part) as follows: "The goal for NASA's Earth Science program shall be to pursue a program of Earth observations, research, and applications activities to better understand the Earth, how it supports life, and how human activities affect its ability to do so in the future. In pursuit of this goal, NASA's Earth Science program shall ensure that securing practical benefits for society will be an important measure of its success in addition to securing new knowledge about the Earth system and climate change." Later, the bill states that the missions outlined in the National Academies' decadal survey "provide the basis for a compelling and relevant program of research and applications, and the Administrator should work to establish an international cooperative effort to pursue those missions."

Title IV of this bill, Exploration Initiative, provides a clear statement to the next President on the return to the Moon and the exploration of Mars in a section entitled, "Reaffirmation of Exploration Policy:" "Congress hereby affirms its support for – (1) the broad goals of the space exploration policy of the United States, including the eventual return to and exploration of the Moon and other destinations in the solar system and the important national imperative of independent access to space; (2) the development of technologies and operational approaches that will enable a sustainable long-term program of human and robotic exploration of the solar system; (3) activity related to Mars exploration, particularly for the development and testing of technologies and mission concepts needed for eventual consideration of optional mission architectures, pursuant to future authority to proceed with the consideration and implementation of such architectures; and (4) international participation and cooperation, as well as commercial involvement in space exploration activities."

A second section under this title, "Stepping Stone Approach to Exploration" states: "In order to maximize the cost-effectiveness of the long-term exploration and utilization activities of the United States, the Administrator shall take all necessary steps, including engaging international partners, to ensure that activities in its lunar exploration program shall be designed and implemented in a manner that gives strong consideration to how those activities might also help meet the requirements of future exploration and utilization activities beyond the Moon. The timetable of the lunar phase of the long-term international exploration initiative shall be determined by the availability of funding. However, once an exploration-related project enters its development phase, the Administrator shall seek, to the maximum extent practicable, to complete that project without undue delays."

Title V of this bill is entitled Space Science. Among its provisions is Section 503, Mars Exploration, that states: "Congress reaffirms its support for a systematic, integrated program of exploration of the Martian surface to examine the planet whose surface is most like Earth's, to search for evidence of past or present life, and to examine Mars for future habitability and as a long-term goal for future human exploration. To the extent affordable and practical, the program should pursue the goal of launches at every Mars launch opportunity, leading to an eventual robotic sample return." Section 509, Outer Planet Exploration, states: "It is the sense of Congress that the outer solar system planets and their satellites can offer important knowledge about the formation and evolution of the solar system, the nature and diversity of these solar system bodies, and the potential for conditions conducive to life beyond Earth. NASA should move forward with plans for an Outer Planets flagship mission to the Europa-Jupiter system or the Titan-Saturn system as soon as practicable within a balanced Planetary Science program."

There are notable words in Title VI, Space Operations. Under International Space Station, Section 60 states, "The Administrator shall take all necessary steps to ensure that the International Space Station remains a viable and productive facility capable of potential United States utilization through at least 2020 and shall take no steps that would preclude its continued operation and utilization by the United States after 2015." The bill calls for the NASA administrator to submit "a plan to support the operations and utilization of the International Space Station beyond fiscal year 2015 for a period of not less than 5 years," and sets forth specific content requirements for this report. It also calls for an "ISS National Laboratory Research Management Plan and requires the "Establishment of Process for Access to National Laboratory," the "Assessment of Equipment to Support Research," and a Budget Plan.

A second subtitle of the title on Space Operations reflects mounting concern on Capitol Hill about the scheduled 2010 retirement of the Space Shuttle. The bill requires NASA to fly the baseline manifest, and to "take all necessary steps to fly one additional Space Shuttle flight to deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer and other scientific equipment and payloads to the International Space Station prior to the retirement of the Space Shuttle. The purpose of the mission required to be planned under this subsection shall be to ensure the active use of the United States portion of the International Space Station as a National Laboratory by the delivery of the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer, and to the extent practicable, the delivery of flight-ready research experiments prepared under the Memoranda of Understanding between NASA and other entities to facilitate the utilization of the International Space Station National Laboratory, as well as other fundamental and applied life sciences and other microgravity research experiments to the International Space Station as soon as the assembly of the International Space Station is completed." This flight can be removed if NASA's Independent Program Assessment Office determines that this mission would significantly increase costs or pose unacceptable safety risks. Congress or the president could reverse this finding.

An additional section on the space shuttle states:"The Administrator shall terminate or suspend any activity of the Agency that, if continued between the date of enactment of this Act and April 30, 2009, would preclude the continued safe and effective flight of the Space Shuttle after fiscal year 2010 if the President inaugurated on January 20, 2009, were to make a determination to delay the Space Shuttle's scheduled retirement." In commenting on this section, Chairman Gordon explained "The provision should not be construed as a congressional endorsement of extending the life of the Shuttle program beyond the additional flight added by this bill to deliver the AMS to the International Space Station. Rather, it reflects our common belief that the decision of whether or not to extend the Shuttle past its planned 2010 retirement date should be left to the next President and Congress, especially since both of the Presidential candidates have asked for the flexibility to make that decision."

Congress directly addressed extending the space shuttle's life in a section entitled "Report on Impacts of Space Shuttle Extension" as follows: "Within 120 days after the date of enactment of this Act, the Administrator shall provide a report to the Congress outlining options, impacts, and associated costs of ensuring the safe and effective operation of the Space Shuttle at the minimum rate necessary to support International Space Station operations and resupply, including for both a near-term, 1-to-2 year extension of Space Shuttle operations and for a longer term, 3-to-6 year extension." This report is to include an assessment of fixed and marginal costs, safety ("including a probability risk assessment of a catastrophic accident before completion of the extended Space Shuttle flight program,") the cost to improve or maintain shuttle safety, facility and workforce impacts for the follow-on Constellation program, and in addition to other items, "the impact of a Space Shuttle flight program extension on the United States' dependence on Russia for International Space Station crew rescue services."

Another title of this bill centers on Near-Earth Objects, which the bill stated "pose a serious and credible threat to humankind," and which "rank as one of the most costly natural disasters that can occur." In addition to calling for an analytical report, the bill calls for the continued availability of the Arecibo Observatory.

The bill also includes language on commercial activities, future decadal surveys, innovation prizes, education, workforce issues, and the "protection of scientific credibility, integrity, and communication within NASA."

Following the bill signing this morning, NASA Administrator Michael Griffin said "I'm grateful to the president for his signature on the NASA Authorization Act of 2008. The major provisions of this authorization bill affirm Congress' support for the broad goals of the president's space exploration policy, including the return of American astronauts to the moon, exploration of Mars and other destinations."

There are many other programs and issues addressed in this bill, which can be read here. Enter HR 6063 in "Search Bill Text," and see version #6 of the bill.

Richard M. Jones
Media and Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics