The US House of Representatives burned the midnight oil to pass S.3729, an authorization bill for NASA, by a vote of 304 to 118 on 29 September.
The pressure to pass the bill—which has already cleared the Senate—was on the House due to the 30 September end of the federal fiscal year, after which funding would have been uncertain for the agency. Later in the same session, the House also passed a continuing resolution to keep the government funded at 2010 levels past 1 October.
The $58 billion bill includes about $1.6 billion to commercial companies building rockets capable of taking astronauts and cargo to the International Space Station and calls on NASA to spend $11 billion over three years on a new spacecraft capable of reaching an asteroid by the end of this decade.
“This important change in direction will not only help us chart a new path in space, but can help us retool for the industries and jobs of the future that will be vital for long term economic growth,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden in a statement released earlier in the day.
Before the vote, the bill’s opponents pointed to the fact that it called for an additional Shuttle launch in 2011, after NASA planned to retire the fleet, at a cost of $500 million. Rep. Bart Gordon (D-TN), who initially opposed the Senate bill in favor of his own version, said in a statement that other important NASA programs, such as science and technology research, would likely be cannibalized for this launch.
But he reluctantly endorsed S. 3729 on 27 September, saying that passage of a flawed NASA authorization would be better than no bill at all.
Not passing this bill would have put “NASA at risk for budget cuts in the future since it could be seen as being adrift,” says John Gedmark, Executive Director of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, a private spaceflight industry group.
Given such pressures, members from both parties supported the bill during House floor deliberations, though often reluctantly. “It’s far from perfect but offers clear direction and sets us up to retain our leadership in space,” said Rep. Ralph Hall (R -TX)
Rep. Gene Green (D-TX) said the bill “should be stronger,” but if it “fails today it will profoundly undermine our space exploration program.”
Many Representatives cited support for the bill because of the potential for lost jobs at NASA and the aerospace corporations it contracts with.
“If we fail to pass a bill, we will lose our most precious assets; our people,” said Rep. Pete Olson (R-TX), whose district includes NASA’s Johnson Spaceflight Center in Houston.
The sole dissenting voice during deliberations came from Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ), who chairs the House space and aeronautics subcommittee. “I have no reluctance in telling you that this is a bad bill, it will do damage to NASA and must be struck down,” she said.
Though she was ultimately unsuccessful in swaying her colleagues, she listed several problems with the bill, including the additional Shuttle launch, a 30 percent cut in funding for STEM and minority education, and that the bill will “force NASA to build a rocket designed by congress and not by NASA engineers.”