Congress Considers Axing NASA's Asteroid Mission

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Screenshot from NASA's Asteroid Retrieval and Utilization Mission video when the mission was announced in April 2013.
NASA LaRC/JSC

A draft authorization bill from the House Science space subcommittee would cap NASA spending at about $16.87 billion for the next two years, prohibit a proposed asteroid retrieval mission, overhaul the agency’s management structure and raise the spending cap for Commercial Crew activities while increasing congressional oversight of the program.

The bill, as Republican lawmakers have been hinting during House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearings all year, also aims to steer the nation’s human spaceflight program back to the moon and provide more money for robotic exploration of the solar system at the expense of NASA’s Earth observation program.

These and other changes were detailed in a copy of the bill, the NASA Authorization Act of 2013, obtained by SpaceNews on June 14. The bill holds NASA to spending levels established by the Budget Control Act of 2011, rather than assuming that Congress and the White House will eliminate sequestration’s across-the-board spending cuts any time soon.

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The House Science space subcommittee will discuss the bill in a hearing on Wednesday (June 19). The Senate Commerce Committee, meanwhile, is “not too far behind” its House counterpart in finishing its own version of the next NASA Authorization bill, Ann Zulkowsky, a senior aide in the Democrat-controlled Senate, said June 14 at the Aerospace 2013 conference in Arlington, Va., organized by Women in Aerospace.

Industry sources said the Senate version of the bill does not hold NASA to the sequestered spending limits. One of these sources said the Senate was expected to unveil its authorization bill, which sets policy and spending guidelines for five years rather than two, this week.

Moon versus asteroid

The House Science space subcommittee’s bill includes many prescriptions for NASA’s human spaceflight program and would codify that Mars, by way of the lunar surface, is a priority destination for human explorers.

"It is the policy of the United States that the development of capabilities and technologies necessary for human missions to lunar orbit, the surface of the moon, the surface of Mars and beyond shall be the goals of the Administration’s human spaceflight program," the bill states.

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An asteroid retrieval mission, proposed by NASA in April as part of the White House’s 2014 budget request, has no place in that framework, according to the draft bill.

"The Administrator shall not fund the development of an asteroid retrieval mission to send a robotic spacecraft to a near-Earth asteroid for rendezvous, retrieval and redirection of that asteroid to lunar orbit for exploration by astronauts," the bill states.

There has been a notable lack of enthusiasm for the asteroid mission among some of the Republicans who hold key NASA oversight roles in the House — including House Science Committee Chairman Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas) — since the mission was proposed.

The mission would require development of a robotic spacecraft with solar-electric propulsion, and the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle and Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift rocket NASA is developing. [Space Launch System Rocket for Deep-Space Flights (Images)]

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There is no funding authorized for a crewed planetary lander or deep-space astronaut habitat in the bill.

Another provision of the draft authorization bill that originated with House Republicans is an overhaul of NASA’s leadership structure. The proposed changes would give Congress greater influence over the selection of the NASA administrator, and give the administrator a six-year term. The NASA administrator is currently a political appointee who serves at the president’s pleasure.

House Republicans led by Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) included these changes in their Space Leadership Preservation Act (H.R. 823), which was introduced in February and has lingered in committee ever since. That bill was itself a rehash of a similar proposal introduced back in September 2012.

Funding for private spaceships

Also on the human spaceflight front, the draft authorization act the House Science Committee has produced authorizes up to $700 million a year for the Commercial Crew Program, which under the 2010 NASA Authorization Act was cleared for up to $500 million in annual funding.

A signature Obama administration effort, the Commercial Crew Program seeks to get at least one privately developed crew transportation system ready to launch astronauts to the International Space Station by the end of 2017.

NASA in August split $1.1 billion among Boeing Space Exploration of Houston, Sierra Nevada Space Systems of Louisville, Colo., and Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX) of Hawthorne, Calif., to mature competing designs. NASA expects a follow-on award next summer after another funding competition now scheduled to begin around July.