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Arguments raised against bill protecting NASA programs from cancellation

Space Launch System takes off
NASA

Space News, an aerospace industry publication, has publicly called for HR 3625, a bill that would protect a number of large NASA programs from being terminated without congressional consent, to be voted down in a January 14, 2014 editorial. It offers a number of reasons for this.

The programs that the bill would protect include the heavy lift Space Launch System, the Orion spacecraft, the International Space Station, and the James Webb Space Telescope. Space News suggests that the legislation is unnecessary because these programs enjoy a great deal of political support and thus would be very hard to cancel without congressional consent anyway. However the editorial mentions only in passing how the Obama administration’s abrupt cancellation of the Constellation space exploration program inspired the new legislation in the first place.

“To a certain extent, the Obama administration invited congressional policy intervention when it unilaterally dismantled the Moon-bound Constellation program — even though it had sound fiscal reasons for doing so — without offering a credible alternative for reinvigorating and advancing NASA’s human spaceflight program.”

Constellation enjoyed a great deal of bipartisan support in Congress as well, yet the administration eventually succeeded in killing the program. Congress was only able to succeed in preserving parts of Constellation, a heavy lift launcher and a deep space capable crewed spacecraft.

Space News goes on to suggest that protecting these programs from unilateral cancellation will remove an incentive for NASA managers to control their costs. However this ignores the fact that the power of the purse and oversight authority resides with Congress, which should provide more than enough incentive for proper cost containment.

Space News is on more solid ground with the objection that the bill provides for a protected class of NASA programs and that the potential exists that soon every NASA project will be shielded from unilateral cancellation. But again the bill only provides that Congress must consent to the cancellation of a project, not that it cannot be cancelled under any circumstance.