Commercial Spaceflight Supporters Rally to Stall Vote on NASA Bill

WASHINGTON ?A flurry of behind-the-scenes maneuvering took place late Wednesday asopponents of a NASA authorization bill fought back efforts by leadersof theU.S. House Science and Technology Committee to bring the measure to afloorvote before lawmakers break for the summer district work period thatbeginsAug. 2.

House aidesand political observers said Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), who chairs thepanel,is expected to meet withaggrieved lawmakers today toaddress concerns with keyelements of the measure, a three-year authorization that seeks to gut amultibillion-dollar White House initiative to foster development ofcommercialcrew taxis.

Housesources said Wednesday that a floor vote on the NASAauthorization could come asearly as July 29, butopponents of the bill ? primarily commercial space advocates ? weresuccessfulin stalling the measure, which now is unlikely to be considered beforeJuly 30,sources said.

Gordon isseeking to bring the measure to the House floor under suspension of therules,a procedural tactic that prevents amendments to a bill during limitedfloordebate and which requires a two-thirds majority vote to pass.

Housevote on NASA bill

The bill,H.R. 5781, would not actually fund NASA, but it would set guidelinesfor howmuch Congress can spend on the space agency's programs. Houseappropriators, inapproving a $19 billion budget for NASA in June, fenced off most of theagency's$4.2 billion human space exploration budget pending enactment of anauthorization bill.

The HouseScience & Technology Committee approved H.R. 5781 with strongbipartisansupport July 22, sending forward a bill that authorizes only a smallfractionof the $3.3 billion NASA sought to invest in a commercial crewtransportationsystem over the next three years, approving $150 million through 2013andanother $300 million in the form of government-backed loans or loanguarantees.[Top 10Commercial Spaceships]

The measurealso would continue much of the work being done under NASA'sConstellationprogram, a 5-year-old effort to build new rockets and spacecraftoptimized forlunar missions that President Barack Obama targeted for termination inhis 2011 spendingproposal delivered toCongress in February.

Commercialspace advocate angst

Commercial spaceadvocates are working to kill the bill. For example, Space ExplorationTechnologies (SpaceX), the Hawthorne, Calif.-based company eager to flyNASAastronauts to the international space station aboard its Falcon9-launchedDragon capsule, is e-mailing supporters to urge their lawmakers to voteno onH.R. 5781.

"If youcare about the future of American space exploration, your urgent helpisneeded," SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk wrote in the e-mail. "Theonly hope for the average citizen to one day travel to space is indanger dueto the actions of certain members of Congress."

Lawmakersare running out of time to move measures to a vote before the U.S.government'snew fiscal year begins Oct. 1.

The House isexpected to break Aug. 2, when members will head home to campaign forsix weeksin advance of November elections. That leaves just three weeks inSeptember topass legislation before the fiscal year ends Sept. 30.

During asix-hour markup of the bill July 22, Gordon said the NASA authorizationwouldcreate a balanced, sustainable human spaceexploration program that allows theagency to livewithin its means.

"We arein tough economic times, and we cannot do it all," Gordon said, adding"someof the 'nice-to-haves' have had to be deferred, and worthy activitieshave beenfunded at lower levels than some of us would like."

Moredebate on tap

But a smallnumber of Democratic House lawmakers take issue with Gordon's bill,House aidesand commercial space advocates said, including members of theCalifornia andOhio delegations who support the president's emphasis on private-sectorinitiatives and increased funding for advanced technology research thatcouldspur a commercial space market while seeding cutting-edge explorationcapabilities for exploring beyond low Earth orbit.

In a July 21letter to Gordon, 13 California Democrats urged the committee torestorefunding for commercial crew and cargo initiatives and explorationtechnologyprograms requested in Obama's 2011 spending plan.

"Thesereductions will have a serious effect on California's workforce andeconomy,and that of many states," states the letter, which was spearheaded byRep.Anna Eshoo, a Silicon Valley Democrat who has worked closely with HouseSpeakerNancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) on energy and technology policy initiatives inCongress. "These are areas that should be the cornerstone of NASA's newdirection because they will drive innovation and job creation acrossthenation."

A companionNASA authorization bill approved by the Senate Commerce, Science andTransportation Committee July 15 also would reduce funding forcommercial crewprograms and continue spending on elements of Constellation, though itistouted as a compromise between Obama's commercial direction for NASAandlawmakers who want to see the agency focused on buildinggovernment-ownedspacecraft for sending astronauts beyond low Earth orbit.

The billawaits floor action in the Senate, where appropriators approved July 22a $19billion NASA spending measure that halved the agency's $500 millionrequest forcommercial crew and funded continued development of a government-ledOrion CrewExploration Vehicle.

Meanwhile,if Gordon's measure is approved by the full House, it would provideguidance toHouse appropriators as they move forward with a 2011 spending packagefor NASAthis fall.

Thisstory was provided by SpaceNews,dedicated tocovering all aspects of the space industry.

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SpaceNews Staff Writer

Amy Klamper is a space reporter and former staff writer for the space industry news publication SpaceNews. From 2004 to 2010, Amy covered U.S. space policy, NASA and space industry professionals for SpaceNews. Her stories included profiles on major players in the space industry, space policy work in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives, as well as national policy set by the White House.