Constellations, Launch, New Space and more…

The Puzzling Space Leadership Preservation Act

By Doug Messier
Parabolic Arc
February 26, 2016
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Capitol Building
On Thursday, the House Science Committee had a hearing on one of the more puzzling pieces of legislation to come out of Congress lately: the Space Leadership Preservation Act.

The bill, introduced by Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas), would turn control of NASA over to an 11-member board of directors, eight of whom would be appointed by Congress. The board would write space agency’s budget. It would also produce a list of candidates from which the president would select a NASA administrator to serve a 10-year term.

The legislation’s main goal is to insulate the space agency from politics and being whipsawed back and forth each time a new presidential administration comes in and decides to change or cancel major programs.

“Over the last 30 years, NASA programs have been cancelled due to cost-overruns, mismanagement or abrupt program changes at the start of each new administration,” Culberson said. “In the past 20 years alone, 27 programs have been cancelled resulting in over $20 billion wasted on uncompleted programs. That is unacceptable. Our space program is too important to continue on this path.

“The Space Leadership Preservation Act will improve our space program and improve morale at NASA centers by ensuring that we take the politics out of science and provide NASA with clear direction and guidance that outlasts the political whims of any one presidential administration – and the political whims of Congress,”  he added.

There are several questionable assumptions here that we will get to momentarily. First, there is a fundamental question that needs to be asked: What president in his right mind would sign away the right to put his or her stamp on the space program?

It’s difficult to imagine any president relinquishing power over such a high-profile agency the does so many cool things. Even if Culberson gets the measure through Congress, Barack Obama would surely veto it. NASA is not broadly important enough that Culberson would find enough votes to override the veto.

So, is Culberson tilting at windmills here? Does he seriously think this legislation has a chance? Or is there something more going on?

Obama’s decision to cancel the Constellation program early in his term was mentioned repeatedly during yesterday’s hearing. This was a traumatic event for Congress, particularly for members who had large chucks of the program in their states and districts. The way the Obama Administration rolled it out — as part of a budget proposal with no advanced consultation — added to the anger.

Congress largely overrode Obama’s decision, with the Ares V booster morphing into the Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion spacecraft staying Orion. Only the smaller Ares I booster was canceled. The administration got part of what it wanted with the Commercial Crew Program to take astronauts to the International Space Station.

Since that uneasy compromise, NASA’s budget cycle has settled into a mutual spite fest. The administration routinely funds SLS and Orion at levels below what Congress feels is necessary. In return, Congress has consistently underfunded the commercial crew program below what the Administration says is necessary to keep it on schedule.

Congress has gotten the upper hand in the dispute, providing full funding for the heavy-lift booster and deep-space crew vehicle. Commercial crew has been consistently under funded, causing its schedule to slide to the right.

So, the system — imperfect may it be — worked, producing a compromise neither side exactly liked, but which both could live with. Despite the demands of sequestration, NASA’s funding has been relatively steady, allowing the space agency to move ahead on all of its programs.

That reality has Democrats on the House Science Committee wondering why change was needed.

“The reality is that we don’t need to set up a new bureaucracy outside of NASA or alter the appointment process for its leaders,” said Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas). “If we are interested in ensuring stability at NASA, it is already in our power as Congress to do so. We are the ones who ultimately determine NASA’s budget. We can provide the necessary budgetary stability to NASA—or we can destabilize it with appropriations delays, continuing resolutions, and shutdowns. The choice is ours.”

Johnson makes a good point here. Like the rest of the government, NASA has been repeatedly hurt by Congress’s failure to pass budgets in time for the start of the fiscal year. It has been forced to operate for months at a time on continuing resolutions that keep spending at the previous fiscal year’s level and delays the start of new programs.

Does it really make sense to give more control over NASA to a body as dysfunctional as Congress?

NASA also has the perpetual problem of being asked to do too many things with too little money. This is one of the reasons that Obama wanted to cancel the Constellation program. It was an expensive deep-space architecture that NASA had a difficult time affording given its limited budget.

The resurrection of Constellation — at Congress’s insistence — as SLS and Orion has done little to address these concerns. There remain serious fears that they will be too expensive for the space agency to maintain and use, thus limiting our ability to explore deep space.

In a press release, House Science Committee Democrats summed up their concerns that the measure would do nothing to insulate NASA from political pressure or improve the agency’s operation.

Democrats on the Committee expressed numerous concerns with the bill: that allowing Congress to use a party-based formula to appoint Board Members would inject partisan politics into that Board; having the Board prepare a NASA budget at the same time as NASA would create wasteful duplication, confusion, and instability; and that establishing a fixed, 10-year term for the Administrator would increase instability, not mitigate it, especially if a new President plans to pursue a different policy agenda from his or her predecessor and doesn’t see that Administrator as being part of his or her “team”.

Having NASA overseen by a board of directors dominated by Congressional appointees would do little to curb the tendency by members of Congress to ensure that their districts and states get their fair share of spending. The move could exacerbate those trends.

So, we come back again to a basic question: why is legislation that amounts to a blatant legislative power grab which President Obama would no doubt veto and Congress likely couldn’t override being pushed forward at this point?

My guess is that it’s probably related to the upcoming presidential election. It is a shot across the bow to whomever becomes president-elect that Congress will strenu0ously fight any major changes to NASA’s agenda. At least as they relate to SLS and Orion.