House preparing to introduce new NASA authorization bill

Space

WASHINGTON — A House committee is finalizing its version of a NASA authorization bill that will cover many of the same topics as a Senate bill, but do so in different ways.

In a speech Dec. 11 at a space law conference here, Rep. Kendra Horn (D-Okla.), chair of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, said her committee was making progress on a new NASA authorization bill that would address issues such as ensuring continued progress on major agency programs, like its effort to return humans to the moon.

“We’re getting close” on a bill, she said. “Stay tuned. We should have more on that soon.”

The last NASA authorization bill passed by Congress was the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017, signed into law in March 2017. It was intended to provide continuity for agency programs as the Trump administration took office.

The Senate Commerce Committee approved a new NASA authorization bill, introduced by bipartisan committee leadership, Nov. 13. That bill extends operations of the ISS through 2030 and calls for a “stepping-stone” approach to human exploration, although one that doesn’t explicitly endorse the administration’s goal of returning humans to the moon by 2024.

Horn said she expected the House bill to address some of the same issues, but not necessarily the same way. “I think the broad topics, and many of the things the Senate has been concerned with, we’re concerned with,” she said. “We may be tackling some of them in slightly different ways, but we are eager to work with the Senate once we get ours done.”

A top priority for the bill, she said, will be to address the “challenges and opportunities” of NASA’s human spaceflight programs. An issue she emphasized in her speech and subsequent question-and-answer session was avoiding the “stops and starts” in agency programs during changes in presidential administrations and Congresses.

“Our intention with this is that we do a better job to put some guardrails in place that will help to hopefully reduce some of those fits and starts, and decisions and changes, that take place between different priorities in administrations and Congresses,” she said.

Horn said she is seeking to develop “a strong bipartisan bill that can come out of the House,” including working closely with the subcommittee’s ranking member, Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas). “It’s incredibly important to me, and I think it’s incredibly important to this country, that we do this right,” she said.

Work on a new NASA authorization bill has taken priority over commercial space legislation. The Senate Commerce Committee approved a new version of the Space Frontier Act in April, after the full Senate passed a similar bill last December. That earlier Senate bill, though, died in the House when it failed to garner the two-thirds majority needed for passage there under suspension of the rules.

Cruz criticized the lack of House action on the new Space Frontier Act, or similar legislation, in October. “Many of the individuals who are gathered in this room today are the ones who are feeling the greatest impact moving forward due to the House’s failure not only to enact the Space Frontier Act, but also its current disinterest in taking any meaningful steps to address this issue,” he said in an Oct. 31 speech at a forum organized by the Air Line Pilots Association and the Commercial Spaceflight Federation on airspace issues for commercial launches.

Horn said action on commercial space legislation would come after completion of the NASA authorization bill. “We’re definitely looking at some of those important questions and how we address those,” she said.

One challenge, she said, is jurisdictional issues among House committees. While the Senate Commerce Committee’s jurisdiction includes both aviation and space, the House Transportation Committee handles aviation issues while the House Science Committee handles space. In recent years the House Transportation Committee has taken an increased interest in commercial space transportation, including how it interacts with the national airspace system.

In panels later in the day at the conference, held under the Chatham House Rule, other speakers noted that commercial space issues in general in Congress have taken a back seat this year to the new emphasis on human space exploration. “The Artemis program has taken up all the attention when it comes to policymaking,” said one.

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