Thursday, February 28, 2013

There They Go Again


Click the arrow to watch the hearing on YouTube.

Last year, a group of six Congressman that included Space Coast Rep. Bill Posey introduced legislation that would seize control of NASA from the President and give it to a board appointed by the President and members of Congress. It could, in theory, give control of NASA to political appointees belonging to the President's opposition party.

Introduced in September, the bill went nowhere, but it resurfaced this week as the Congress faces the spectre of sequestration on March 1.

The new bill, H.R. 823, differs somewhat from last year's bill, as Marcia Smith explains at SpacePolicyOnline.com. A hearing was held yesterday to discuss the bill.

The revised bill leaves open the door for political chicanery.

If both houses of Congress are controlled by the President's opposition party, then that party would control the board 6-5.

The bill has a conflict-of-interest clause for these political appointees — they cannot be employed by an entity that has a NASA contract — but it says nothing about a financial interest, such as owning stock or drawing a pension.

The NASA Administrator would no longer submit the agency's proposed budget. The board would. And that budget would include “a strict adherence to the recommendation that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration include in a balanced program a flagship class mission, which may be executed in cooperation with one or more international partners.” Just what is a “flagship class mission” is undefined, or how it would be adequately funded.

The Board would also submit to the President a list of candidates for Administrator, Deputy Administrator and Chief Financial Officer. One change from last year's bill is substituting “may appoint” for “shall appoint”, so the President is not forced to select a candidate nominated by the opposition party. I raised the concern in last year's blog post that the bill might violate the U.S. Constitution, which grants executive powers to the President, not Congress. It may be the bill's authors agreed.

If you watch the hearing, several members and witnesses lamented how funding doesn't align with project costs. The federal funding process is a quirk of the Constitution. The budget — known as “authorization” — differs from how much Congress actually provides — called “appropriation”.

For example, The 2010 NASA Authorization Act established budget levels for commercial crew of $500 million in Fiscal Year 2012 and $500 million in Fiscal Year 2013.

For Fiscal Year 2012, the Obama administration requested $850 million for commercial crew, to reduce the so-called “gap” during which NASA would rely on the Russian Soyuz to taxi astronauts to the International Space Station. The gap was proposed by the Bush administration in January 2004 and approved by Congress later that year. It has been government policy for almost nine years.

But Congress rejected the Obama administration's request to close the gap, choosing to punish the administration by appropriating only $406 million, or $94 million less than what was authorized and $444 million less than what the administration requested.

For Fiscal Year 2013 — the budget cycle we're in now — the administration requested $829.7 million. As you may know, here we are five months into the FY13 budget but Congress has yet to pass the budget — hence the sequestration that kicks in tomorrow. The government is operating on a “continuing resolution,” essentially extending last year's appropriations until Congress acts. The last time the two houses discussed the FY13 NASA budget, the House had approved $500 million for commercial crew and the Senate $525 million — again, both far below what the administration requested to close the gap.

The bill does nothing to address this Congressional misbehavior, which is the real core of the problem, and one of the bill's authors yesterday demonstrated for the record his talent for prevarication.

Rep. Posey, who represents the Space Coast and knows better, essentially denied that the commercial crew program exists. He said:

I heard the President campaigning, saying he was going to close the gap between the Shuttle and the Constellation program, and nobody in the world was more shocked than I when, as the chairman said, he red-lined the Constellation program. That's not closing the gap. That's making the gap eternal.

So many fibs in that statement.

In his August 2008 Titusville campaign stop, Obama never promised to continue Constellation. He said he would add a Shuttle flight — which he did, STS-135. He said that he would speed “the development of the Shuttle's successor” but never said what that successor would be.

Under the Constitution, the President has no “red-line” authority. All budgetary authority lies with Congress.

In 2009, the President appointed the Review of U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, commonly known as the Augustine Committee after its chair. The Committee's report concluded that Constellation was not financially sustainable. The Ares I, being built to ferry astronauts to the International Space Station, would not be operational until at least 2017, but it would be funded by shutting down the ISS in 2015. NASA was building a vehicle that would have no destination.

Congress agreed with the Committee and cancelled Constellation.

Obama proposed closing the gap by priming the commercial cargo and crew programs. Commercial cargo already flies — the next SpaceX launch is scheduled for tomorrow. Commercial crew was projected to be operational by 2015 until Congress cut the funding the last two years.

To quote Shakespeare, the fault lies not in our stars, but in ourselves.

And now Mr. Posey wants to turn over control of NASA to the very people responsible for perpetuating U.S. reliance on Russia.

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