Balancing Act: House Science Committee Draft of New NASA Bill

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Publication date: 
28 June 2013

A 90-minute hearing last week by the House Subcommittee on Space demonstrated how difficult it will be to enact legislation providing budget and policy guidance to NASA for FY 2014 and FY 2015.

“We are all here because we care about NASA and want it to succeed,” Subcommittee Chairman Steven Palazzo (R-MS) said at the outset of the June 19 hearing on a discussion draft of the “National Aeronautics and Space Administration Authorization Act of 2013.”  His comments were echoed by Donna Edwards (D-MD), the subcommittee’s Ranking Member, who declared “I know that Members of this Committee want to see NASA thrive; we must have an Authorization bill that ensures that.”

NASA is currently operating under authorization legislation that expires this year.  The discussion draft of the new bill that the Republican members and staff of the subcommittee wrote would establish authorization levels – or spending caps – on NASA’s programs.  The bill would not provide the actual money; that is the function of appropriations legislation.  The new bill also seeks to establish or reaffirm previous policy guidance.  As expected, there are stark differences of opinion among the subcommittee members about both spending limits and policy guidance.

The bill is 80-pages long, and for the most part the language is fairly straight-forward.  Title I – Authorizations of Appropriations provides identical program funding levels for both FY 2014 and FY 2015, providing a total budget of $16.8 billion dollars, which Smith declared “is consistent with the requires of the Budget Control Act” -- the major spending deal agreed to by Congress and the Obama Administration in 2011.  NASA’s FY 2012 enacted budget was $17.8 billion (an amount reduced by approximately 5 percent for this year), so the subcommittee’s bill seeks to cut the agency’s budget by about $1 billion in each of the next two years.

Authorization levels can be found on pages 4 through 8 of the discussion draft.  These figures can be compared to NASA’s current budget by viewing page 11 of this NASA budget presentation.  Note that the FY 2012 figures should be reduced by 5 percent for this year.  The following figures pertain to NASA’s Science Programs; proposed authorization levels are identical for FY 2014 and 2015:

Total Science:

FY 2012 enacted level was $5,073.7 million
The Administration’s FY 2014 request was $5,017.8 million
The subcommittee’s proposed authorization is $4,626.9 million

Within the Science budget are the following five programs:

Earth Science:

FY 2012 enacted level was $1,760.5 million
The Administration’s FY 2014 request was $1,846.1 million
The subcommittee’s proposed authorization is $1,200.0 million

Planetary Science:

FY 2012 enacted level was $1,501.4 million
The Administration’s FY 2014 request was $1,217.5 million
The subcommittee’s proposed authorization is $1,500.0 million


FY 2012 enacted level was $648.4 million
The Administration’s FY 2014 request was $642.3 million
The subcommittee’s proposed authorization is $642.3 million

James Webb Space Telescope:

FY 2012 enacted level was $518.6 million
The Administration’s FY 2014 request was $658.2 million
The subcommittee’s proposed authorization is $658.2 million


FY 2012 enacted level was $644.8 million
The Administration’s FY 2014 request was $653.7 million
The subcommittee’s proposed authorization is $626.4 million

The authorization levels for NASA’s Earth Science program – a proposed reduction of more than 30 percent from the current budget – attracted much attention at the hearing.  A brief prepared by Republican committee staff explained this proposed level approximates that of FY 2008, and ties reduced funding for the Earth Science program to the need for a better balance with increased funding for the Planetary Sciences program.  In his opening remarks, Palazzo stated:

“Over the last five years the Earth Science program has grown by more than 40% at the expense of other critical missions within the Science Mission Directorate and elsewhere in NASA. There are 13 agencies throughout the federal government that currently fund over $2.5 billion in climate science research, but only one agency does space exploration and space science. This bill ensures a balanced portfolio of science mission programs by simply moderating the increases that Earth Science has received over the last 5 years.”

Edwards disagreed with the proposed Earth Sciences program budget, saying:

“Cuts to Earth Science would not only result in gaps in the data needed to understand changes in our Earth system, it would also impact on the data needed for water monitoring, forest and timber productivity forecasting, improving gas and electric utilities load forecasting, and assessing the impact of sea level rise in coastal communities.  These uses and societal benefits are exactly what we hope for when we make federal investments in research and technology. To stop them would not be responsible.”

Two witnesses appeared before the subcommittee.  Steven Squyres of Cornell University chaired a planetary decadal survey for the National Research Council and is now the Chairman of the NASA Advisory Council.  He told the subcommittee that “I view with considerable concern” the proposed reduction to Earth Sciences research, and criticized disproportionate cuts the Administration proposed for Planetary Science research in FY 2014, and disproportionate cuts in the authorization bill for Earth Sciences. He acknowledged very different views on much money should be spent in both fields, acknowledging that “some tough choices have to be made” and urged committee members to strike a compromise.

Major policy provisions relating to NASA’s Science programs are found in Title III, starting on page 31 of the bill.  It calls for NASA to follow guidance provided by National Academies’ Space Studies Board decadal surveys.  In requires a plan to update low-earth orbital and deep space exploration space communications architecture.  Section 304 outlines a strategy for cooperation between NASA and the Department of Energy on radioisotope thermoelectric generators.  Other provisions concern an extrasolar planet exploration strategy, requires that the James Webb Space Telescope “continue to receive priority of funding,” mandates the continued development of the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, establishes a schedule for three classes of Planetary Science missions, and calls for the continuation of the Near-Earth Object Survey.   The section on NASA’s Earth Science program calls for the agency to conduct R&D on new sensors and instruments and requires full cost of work reimbursement for operational Earth science systems, data analysis, and other program components.  Other language states that NASA should not be financially responsible for the development of the Joint Polar Satellite System Climate Sensors.

There are extensive provisions relating to Human Spaceflight.  A section entitled Policy states: “It is the policy of the United States that the development of capabilities and technologies necessary for human missions to lunar orbit, the surface of the Moon, the surface of Mars, and beyond shall be the goals of the Administration’s human space flight program.”  Later language calls for the development of “a sustained human presence on the Moon and the surface of Mars.”  A first crewed mission fully integrating the Orion crew capsule and the Space Launch System rocket should occur “as close to 2020 as possible.”  NASA is to develop a series of roadmaps to reach these and other objectives spelled out in the bill.   There is exacting language regarding the utilization of the International Space Station, and the Commercial Crew program. 

The bill takes aim at two initiatives advanced by the Obama Administrator.  It prohibits NASA from implementing any of the Administration’s STEM education program changes proposed in the FY 2014 request which Palazzo said were “poorly conceived and . . . not ready for implementation.”  Also, “the [NASA] Administrator shall not fund the development of an asteroid retrieval mission to send a robotic spacecraft to a near-Earth asteroid for rendezvous, retrieval, and redirection of that asteroid to lunar orbit for exploration by astronauts.”  Palazzo said this mission was “a costly and complex distraction,” faulting it both for its lack of specificity and support from NASA’s advisory panels.

Also testifying at the hearing was A. Thomas Young, who was the former Director of the Goddard Space Flight Center and former Executive Vice President at Lockheed Martin Corporation.  Young told the subcommittee “we continually operate with a budget that is inadequate to implement the established program,” and warned that the bill’s recommended budget for Human Spaceflight will be inadequate to support a “space station focused human spaceflight program” and an exploration focused program.  “I do not believe the budget is adequate to accomplish both and a choice needs to be made to have a credible path forward,” he said.  A manifestation of the tight budget is the bill’s schedule for future test flights of the Orion capsule and the Space Launch System, with Squyres expressing “serious concern” about the low flight rate for these missions.   

Many other issues were raised regarding the draft bill, with agreement about some, such as opposition to moving ahead with a reorganization of STEM education programs, and disagreement about others, such as the Space Launch System.  Those divisions were not always along expected party lines, with one Republican expressing his intention to vote against the bill unless the authorization for the Space Launch System rocket is significantly increased, while another Republican criticized the budget as unsustainable, calling it the “SLS Titanic.”

It is unclear what the subcommittee’s next move will be on this legislation.  Ranking Member Edwards called for further hearings to receive expert testimony on the bill’s provisions.  Full Committee Ranking Member Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-TX) said “rather than moving directly to an unproductive markup, I hope that the Majority will take a step back and at a minimum hold additional legislative hearings so we can hear from the affected parties what the impacts of the proposed cuts and changes to Earth Science and Space Technology will be,” as well as hearing from the Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel. 

Subcommittee Chairman Palazzo gave no indication during the hearing what his intentions are.  Should he decide to go to a markup he will almost certainly have the votes, as subcommittee Republicans have a 12 - 9     advantage over the subcommittee Democrats.

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