A housekeeping measure for the U.S. civil space program adopted in the final hours of the expiring Congress includes language reaffirming congressional support for ’s current spending priorities in the budget battles ahead.
The legislation, needed to extend government indemnification of third-party damages from commercial space launches and to allowto continue buying human-spaceflight services from Russia, also included “sense of Congress” language reaffirming support for a mix of government and commercial human spaceflight vehicles.
The “Space Exploration Sustainability Act” adopted Jan. 2 specifically lists the heavy-lift Space Launch System (SLS), the Orion multi-purpose crew vehicle and commercial crew and cargo space vehicles under development with NASA backing as “inherently complementary and interrelated,” and forbids the use of SLS or Orion funding to pay for commercial-vehicle development.
“This action by Congress reaffirms the intent of the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, which reflected a hard-fought Congressional and Administration consensus for the future of NASA in the post-shuttle era,” stated retiring Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), who was credited by NASA Administrator Charles Bolden with forcing the White House budget office to free funding for the SLS. “I am delighted that this will be one of my final acts as a U.S. Senator.”
The space legislation passed both houses of Congress on voice votes as lawmakers focused on deal-making to avoid the “fiscal cliff” of mandatory tax increases and spending cuts. But budget “sequestration” was only delayed by two months, setting the stage for more bitter battles over spending priorities and strong downward pressure on the discretionary spending that funds NASA.
The sense-of-Congress approach isn’t binding on the White House, which has made no secret of its preference for commercial human spaceflight over the government-backed SLS sometimes dubbed the “Senate Launch System.” But it sends a signal that a majority in the outgoing Congress still supported the compromise embodied in NASA’s 2010 authorization act, and space-policy leaders in the new 113th Congress will continue to do so.
Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), the new chairman of the House Science Committee that authorizes NASA spending, handled final passage of the sense-of-Congress resolution on the House floor, and Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who worked with Hutchison on the Senate Commerce Committee to hammer out the 2010 compromise, vowed to continue that work in the new Congress. The 2010 authorization expires this year, and it remains to be seen exactly what the White House will propose for NASA in its fiscal 2014 budget request. “This legislation reaffirms our commitment to a robust future for the space program,” Nelson stated.
The resolution extended NASA’s waiver to buy seats on Russia’s Soyuz capsule and other Russian human spaceflight services until the end of 2020 under the Iran, North Korea and Syria Nonproliferation Act. With the first commercial human spaceflights not scheduled until 2017, and then only if NASA gets its full budget request, the agency needed the waiver to begin negotiating access for its astronauts to the International Space Station after mid-2016.
The original House version of the bill sought a two-year extension of third-party liability sharing for commercial space launches, but that chamber accepted a Senate amendment limiting the extension to one year.