Authorization Bill for Extra Shuttle Flight Clears House Subcommittee
Access platforms at Launch Pad 39A are moved into position against Space Shuttle Discovery. Discovery arrived at its seaside launch pad and was hard down at 6:06 a.m. EDT on May 3.
Credit: NASA/Troy Cryder

WASHINGTON — A bill mandating that NASA conduct an additional space shuttle flight to deliver a $1 billion science payload to the International Space Station cleared the House Science and Technology space and aeronautics subcommittee May 20.

Lawmakers wasted little time approving the NASA Authorization Act of 2008 (H.R. 6063) and sending it to the full committee for consideration. With no amendments offered, Rep. Charlie Melancon (D-La.) gaveled the markup session to a close less than six minutes after it began.

Melancon was filling in for Rep. Mark Udall (D-Colo.), the subcommittee's chairman, who was forced, by airplane trouble, to miss the markup of the legislation he had introduced five days earlier.

H.R. 6063, in addition to requiring NASA to fly the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the space station as originally promised, sets generous spending levels for the U.S. space agency that congressional appropriators are free to ignore. The bill authorizes a $19.2 billion budget for NASA for 2009, or about $1.6 billion more than the White House is requesting.

The bill also would authorize appropriators to give NASA an additional $1 billion in 2009 expressly for the purpose of accelerating development of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and Ares I launcher.

Orion and Ares currently are on track to enter service in March 2015, some four-and-a-half years after the space shuttle is due to conduct its last flight.

The legislation would permit NASA to remain on course for returning to the Moon around 2020 but encourages the agency to embrace international collaboration more fully as it pursues its space exploration goals.

If H.R. 6063 becomes law as is, NASA would be required to name the United States' first lunar outpost after Apollo 11 astronaut Neil Armstrong, the first person to set foot on the Moon, and to design the outpost to operate for extended periods without humans present.

On the science front, the bill would authorize NASA to proceed with development of Glory, the climate-monitoring satellite that breached Nunn-McCurdy-like cost controls put in place by the 2005 NASA Authorization Act. The Nunn-McCurdy law requires the Pentagon to notify Congress and take various corrective actions when programs experience cost growth that reaches certain thresholds.

NASA also would be required to produce a plan for ensuring continued collection of the type of thermal infrared land imagery returned by the Landsat 5 and 7 satellites. The Landsat spacecraft NASA has in development for a 2011 launch does not include a thermal band. Under the bill, NASA would be required to present Congress with an option for adding a thermal band to the Landsat Data Continuity Mission while minimizing the cost and schedule delay associated with the change.

Rep. Tom Feeney of Florida, the subcommittee's ranking Republican, attributed the bill's easy approval by the panel to the bipartisan spirit in which it was drafted. He praised Richard Oberman, the subcommittee's Democratic staff director, for engaging Republican staff in the process from the beginning.