Congress to NASA–Follow the Law and Build the Rocket

There is a lot of coverage lately over NASA’s resistance to following the 2010 NASA Authorization Act, which the President Obama signed in October 2010. Such coverage includes:

Specifically, NASA is thumbing its nose at sections 302 and 303 of the Act that call for it to develop a heavy-lift booster and a multi-purpose crew vehicle. And NASA is likely to continue to do so until Congress appropriates funds, with no wriggle room for NASA, for the Space Launch System and Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle.

NASA is more or less currently working under the appropriations rules that funded the agency for the 2010 fiscal year. NASA’s leadership has variously claimed that it does not have the flexibility to direct spending away from Constellation–the Shelby language below supposedly prevents that–towards the Space Launch System. The author of the Shelby language, Sen. Richard Shelby, as repeatedly stated that NASA has all of the flexibility it needs to fund work on the SLS.

Yes, not following an authorization act is a violation of law. No matter, it’s been ages since anyone has been prosecuted for such a violation, something that NASA’s leadership is hoping won’t change. In the meantime, NASA’s leadership is trying to delay beginning work on the SLS using the following justifications:

  • The 2010 Authorization Act is out of touch with current budget realities, as argued by Dr. John Holdren, head of the White House’s Office of Science & Technology.
  • Until the end of the decade, we’re not going anywhere that requires a heavy-lift rocket, as stated by NASA Administrator Bolden.
  • Any rocket and crew capsule programs must be “affordable, sustainable and realistic” and that NASA must get outside cost estimates for the new architecture before beginning. Whether a rocket or crew capsule meet this standard appears to the NASA Administrator to be at his sole discretion.

Resistance by NASA to abide by its own Authorization Act is a not terribly unusual. But NASA’s actions should not come as a surprise to anyone. Just looking at the White House’s proposed 2012 NASA Budget demonstrates that the White House and NASA little regard for the 2010 NASA Authorization Act. The White House and NASA seem to be working under the notion that they may have lost last year’s battle, but the war to take human space flight away from NASA is still very much alive. And the only way to begin to dispel that notion is for Congress to pass an appropriations bill that mirrors the 2010 NASA Authorization Act. That Congress has so far failed to do so is its own fault.

If Congress wants to see the SLS and MPCV built, it is going to have to pass an appropriations bill that essentially ties NASA’s hands by directly funding in specific language those two programs. And the House and Senate Appropriations Committees need to take a page from the fight Congress once had with a very recalcitrant then-Secretary of Defense Cheney over the V-22 Osprey and put in language specifying that inaction would be akin to misappropriation of funds. Sometimes the only way to get a recalcitrant Agency leadership to follow the law is to put them in a situation where doing otherwise puts them in serious legal jeopardy.

Shelby Language:

    “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.”

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