Another swing and a miss for NASA authorization

For advocates of a NASA authorization bill, the refrain is once again the same as fans of a losing sports team: Wait ’till next year.

In the final hours of the 115th Congress Dec. 9, the Senate passed by unanimous consent an amended version of S. 3346, the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2016. The bill was an amended version of a bill that the Senate Commerce Committee approved in September, after weeks of negotiations with House members.

The bill authorized $19.5 billion for NASA in fiscal year 2017 and included a wide range of policy provisions. That included developing a transition plan for future operations of the International Space Station, creation of a “strategic framework” for human space exploration leading to Mars missions, and a report about the effectiveness of NASA’s planned Asteroid Redirect Mission.

Unfortunately for the bill’s supporters, the passage of the bill came a day after the House wrapped up its business for the year. Delays in getting the bill passed in the Senate — some senators blocked consideration of bills by unanimous consent earlier in the week in order to highlight a lack of action on heath care and pensions for retired coal miners — ultimately doomed its prospects despite the last-minute passage by the Senate.

The Senate bill becomes the latest failed effort in recent years to pass a NASA authorization, but one that turned the tables on previous failed efforts. In February 2015, for example, the House passed by a voice vote a NASA authorization bill, H.R. 810, only for it to languish in the Senate. In June 2014, the House passed another NASA authorization bill, but the Senate took no action on it.

Senate proponents of the bill, though, hope that getting S. 3346 through the Senate is a good omen for next year. With many of the key members of the House and Senate committees overseeing NASA returning when the new Congress convenes in January, they hope they can reintroduce the bill and get it passed much more quickly.

“This broad, bipartisan legislative achievement provides NASA with the stability it needs as the agency transitions to a new administration. It also lays an important marker as we continue working to enact this important legislation as soon as possible,” said Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), the bill’s lead sponsor, in a Dec. 10 statement. He said he planned to work “with colleagues in both chambers and on both sides of the aisle again next year” on similar legislation.

“With passage in the Senate and strong bipartisan support in the House, I’m hopeful we’ll get something quickly passed into law next year,” said Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, in a statement Dec. 12.

Scorecard of other bills

The Senate passed the NASA act after approving a continuing resolution (CR) that funds the federal government through April 28. The government had been operating under a CR funding agencies at fiscal year 2016 levels since the new fiscal year started Oct. 1; that original CR expired Dec. 9.

The new CR includes a provision, known in legislative jargon as an “anomaly,” that gives NASA flexibility to spend money at higher levels on the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket, Orion spacecraft and associated ground systems. The CR includes a similar provision for the Joint Polar Satellite System program at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

NASA Associate Administrator Robert Lightfoot said at a Dec. 9 Space Transportation Association luncheon on Capitol Hill that the agency’s operations should not be affected by the CR, particularly with the addition of the anomaly for exploration programs. “Right now we’re fine, with the anomaly,” he said. “I don’t think anything will be affected.” That assessment might change, he added, if the CR is later extended for the entire fiscal year.

In other action Dec. 9, the Senate passed H.R. 2726, a bill that authorizes the United States Mint to create coins for the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 mission. The House passed the bill on a voice vote Dec. 5.

The bill calls for the minting of gold, silver and other coins for the anniversary, with proceeds going to scholarship programs and a new exhibition called “Destination Moon” planned for the National Air and Space Museum. Proponents of the bill had warned that the coins might not be ready in time for the anniversary in 2019 if the bill was not passed this year.

The Senate, though, did not take action on the To Research, Evaluate, Assess, and Treat (TREAT) Astronauts Act, which provides extended health care screening for former astronauts. The House passed that bill, H.R. 6076, on a voice vote Dec. 7.

“In an age when spaceflight has come to seem almost routine, it is easy to overlook how dangerous it is and how little we know about its long-term health effects,” said Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science Committee, in a statement about the bill’s House passage. “The TREAT Astronauts Act also will help us better understand the medical science of human spaceflight, enabling the next generation of explorers to literally go where no man has gone before.”

While the Senate did not take up the TREAT Astronauts Act, its version of a NASA authorization included similar language in a section known as the Scott Kelly Human Spaceflight and Exploration Act, after the former NASA astronaut who completed a nearly one-year stay on the space station earlier this year.