NASA Authorization Bill Easily Through House and Senate

by Paul Doss – GSA Visiting Scholar and former chair, GSA Geology and Public Policy Committee

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Update: S.442 was signed into law on 21 March 2017.

S.442, An Act to authorize the programs of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, was introduced by Senator Ted Cruz (R-TX) on February 17, 2017, was read three times, and passed without amendment by Unanimous Consent on the same day.  It passed the House by voice vote with no changes on March 7th, and now heads to the White House for the President’s signature.  The bill does not determine final funding levels, as it is an authorization bill. An Authorization sets the priorities for a program or agency. Ideally, subsequent appropriations would operate under authorizing guidelines or principles, although this is not always the case. For FY2017, S.442 authorizes a total of $19.508 billion for NASA. Realize that FY2017 is half over and the U.S. government is still operating on a Continuing Resolution without final funding decisions for the year.

S.442 is a bipartisan success, passing easily through the Senate and the House with no changes, building upon hearings and negotiations in the prior session of Congress.  This authorization of $19.508 billion exceeds President Obama’s FY2017 request for NASA of $19.0 billion. The act calls for $4,330,000,000 for Exploration, $5,023,000,000 for Space Operations, $5,500,000,000 for Science, $2,788,600,000 for Safety, Security, and Mission Services, $640,000,000 for Aeronautics, $686,000,000 for Space Technology, $115,000,000 for Education, and additional funding for construction, environmental compliance, and other lines.

Conspicuously absent in the S. 442, also known as the NASA Transition Authorization Act, is any mention of NASA Earth Science or Landsat. Sen. Cruz, the bill’s sponsor, has made it no secret that he wishes to see NASA efforts directed away from Earth. Representative Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, is also on record that NASA should focus on exploration. The authorization for Science in this bill ($5.5 billion) is $0.1 billion less than Obama’s FY17 request for Science. The Obama Administration’s request explicitly targeted over $2 billion for Earth Science, including a continuation of Landsat.  Sen. Cruz and Rep. Smith have indicated that they wish to see Earth observation efforts shifted away from NASA to other agencies. How those Earth observing efforts would be distributed among the “other agencies” has not yet been described.

Continued operation of the International Space Station is prominent within the authorization.  There is also a clear call to expand the human presence in space.  Continued operations of the International Space Station until 2024 is called for, along with support for the Mars 2020 Rover, a mission to Europa, and the James Webb Space Telescope. The act also adds the search for life’s origins and distribution in the universe as a NASA objective.

The bipartisan success of The NASA Transition Authorization Act is a welcome development. Partisan posturing is certainly evident with regard to Earth observations and some other arenas of scientific inquiry. But, visits to offices on both sides of Capitol Hill, and both sides of the aisle, suggest that space science is highly regarded and sits on comfortable ground in Washington, D.C.

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