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Casey DreierDecember 10, 2013

A Protected Class of Programs at NASA?

What real political support looks like

Updated Dec 11: The House Science Committee approved this bill via a voice vote, with an amendment that specified the James Webb Space Telescope as one of the protected programs. The bill now moves to the full House for a vote, which has yet to be scheduled.

The House Science Committee is poised to add four new entries to the protected species list in the United States. These rare creatures go by the names of the Space Launch System, Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (Orion), the International Space Station, and the James Webb Space Telescope.

A new bill, to be considered by the committee on Wednesday, proposes to create a special type of program at NASA. For the lucky few, the bill (H.R.3625) does two things:

  1. it allows the programs to dip into their termination reserves to fund current development, and,
  2. only allows those programs to be cancelled via an act of Congress.

Termination reserves are monies set aside on the off chance that NASA decides to cancel a large program, allowing the contractors to close out operations and transition their workforce. Allowing SLS et. al. to dip into these reserves is questionable, since Congress essentially then guarantees that NASA will pay the actual termination costs if the program is cancelled out of future budgets.

The Space Launch System (original concept)

NASA

The Space Launch System (original concept)

But more importantly, this bill moves a select few programs at NASA into a protected status, such that NASA itself cannot cancel them if they go severely over budget, behind schedule, or any other number of problems. It creates a two-tier structure of programs at the space agency and represents a departure from NASA control over their own projects.

Not only is this unfair, but it seems to set a bad precedent. If SLS/Orion/ISS/JWST are such important programs, why bother passing this bill? If they are truly worth the cost and will return great science and exploration dividends in the long run, why would NASA want to cancel these? The only reason to put these programs in protected status is if Congress is not confident that these will measure up in the long-run, something which doesn't reflect well on any of these programs. Why does the Science Committee seem to have a lack of confidence that NASA will continue to fund these? It doesn't make sense to me.

The politics of SLS, Orion, and the JWST are complex. There are many great reasons to invest in these projects. There are other strong reasons not to. Both the Congress and the White House have decided that these are all worthy projects. But enshrining them in a cloak of near-invincibility does no service to these programs. They, like every other project at NASA, should be judged on their merits and their cost vs. benefits through the normal political process, not added to some protected list to the exclusion of all other NASA activities.

The full House will still have to approve this legislation if it moves out of committee tomorrow (likely, since it has 15 co-sponsors). It's not clear how the Senate will react to this bill, but we will keep you updated with its progress.

Read more: Explaining Policy, SLS, Space Policy, Orion, human spaceflight, James Webb Space Telescope

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Casey Dreier

Director of Space Policy for The Planetary Society
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