Is NASA Leadership Defying Congress’ Intent?

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Looks like things are heating-up between Congress and NASA leadership over that leadership’s efforts to begin terminating Constellation before Congress votes whether to do so, according to Space News Amy Klamper’s article, GAO Asked To Examine NASAs Constellation Shutdown Plans.

The issue revolves around FY 2010 Consolidated Appropriations Bill Summary, part of the 2010 Omnibus spending bill passed by Congress last December, that states,

“Human Spaceflight: In October 2009, the Review of U.S. Human Spaceflight Plans Committee (The Augustine Commission) reported its findings on NASA’s human space flight program. The Augustine Commission raised several issues regarding the current program and budget profile that will require thoughtful consideration by the Administration. In the absence of a bona fide proposal from the Administration on the future of U.S. human spaceflight activities and investments, the bill provides the budget request of $3.1 billion for activities to support human spaceflight in fiscal year 2010; however, the bill requires that any program termination or elimination or the creation of any new program, project or activity not contemplated in the budget request must be approved in subsequent appropriations Acts.”

In a letter to the Government Accountability Office, or GAO, 16 members of Congress raise several issues that they want investigated by the GAO as possible violations to the FY 2010 Appropriations Summary, sometimes called the Shelby language, to determine whether:

    NASA is abusing the Anti-Deficiency Act when the agency instructs employees to conserve 2010 funds intended for Constellation.

    NASA is violating the Impoundment Act by withholding 2010 funds “rather than proceeding with contracts which represent a normal schedule of [2010] activity implied by Congress’s refusal to allow NASA to terminate the Constellation program”.

    NASA is using “quite a few employees” to develop new plans for its human space exploration, work that may be “far more extensive than simply discussing options and plans,” according to the letter. “Rather, senior-level program personnel seem to be spending all of their days on the new plans instead of on the Constellation programs, projects and activities, which are their jobs (according to the [2010] bill language).”

The letter instructs GAO chief Gene Dodaro to expedite an investigation of NASA employees tasked with developing new human spaceflight plans in approximately 60 days, as opposed to the typical 100 to 120 days required. In the letter, the lawmakers assert NASA has failed to provide an answer to congressional staff inquiries submitted Feb. 22 about who is working on the new plans, how much of their workday is consumed by such tasks and from which payroll accounts the employees are being paid.

Obviously, given what we’ve heard about NASA management’s instructions to NASA civil servants regarding closing-up their Constellation work, we are not surprised to read that Congress has caught on to NASA leadership’s possible…ok, likely violation of the Shelby language. What we have trouble fathoming is why NASA leadership would engage in this fight?

If there’s one thing nobody in Congress likes, it is the Executive Branch snubbing the will of Congress. It only makes those who might have supported you want to oppose you. We recall that once upon a time over the course of three years then Secretary of Defense Dick Cheney tried to muscle Congressional intent regarding funding of the V-22 Osprey. He’s gone. The V-22 is flying.

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