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House passes NASA bill with commercial crew, space exploration policy changes

Lunar colony concept
Lunar colony concept
NASA (public domain)

According to a Tuesday post on the Space Politics blog, the full House passed the 2014 NASA Authorization Bill by an overwhelming 401 to 2 vote. Debate on the bill took just half an hour in which members from both sides of the aisle praised its bi-partisan nature. This contrasts to the bitter partisan debate that took place over a previous version last summer.

The bill only authorizes NASA spending for the current fiscal year. It also contains a number of policy mandates, many of which run counter to Obama administration space policy. They range from termination liability for NASA programs to a requirement for a space exploration road map to an independent cost evaluation for the commercial crew program.

On termination liability, the bill lists the International Space Station, the Space Launch System, the Orion spacecraft, and the James Webb Space Telescope for special consideration. The bill requires that the administration seek congressional approval before attempting to terminate these programs. It also prohibits the administration from reserving termination contingency funds from money appropriated. This is in reaction to the abrupt cancellation of the Constellation return to the moon program that still rankles Congress.

In apparent reaction to the National Research Council’s space exploration report, the bill prohibits funds to be spent on the Asteroid Redirect Mission and on efforts to locate small asteroids as targets for ARM until a proper cost accounting is made for the project. It requires NASA to develop an exploration pathway aimed toward ultimate crewed landings on Mars. It also strongly suggested that the ISS, lunar landings, missions to cis-lunar space, trans-lunar space, Lagrangian points, and the moons of of Mars, Phobos and Deimos, be incorporated in the exploration pathway.

The bill demanded an independent cost evaluation of the commercial crew program, designed to build publically funded, privately operated spacecraft to service the International Space Station. It asked for an evaluation of scenarios depending on a number of appropriations levels over the next three years aiming to a 2017 first flight of at least one commercial crew provider.