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NASA Wants More Spaceport Infrastructure Opened to Private Sector

WASHINGTON — A legislative wish-list shows that NASA, mired in a U.S. budget crunch that has dimmed prospects for new authorization and appropriations bills this year, is looking for ways to give private space companies more sway over critical national space infrastructure — so long as they are willing to pay for the privilege. 

The undated 35-page legislative proposal — which also contains many noncommercialization suggestions for Congress to consider — was crafted by NASA in response to the draft NASA authorization bill unveiled June 19 by the Republican leadership of House Science, Space and Technology space subcommittee.

The list was also shared with the U.S. Senate, where staffers are busy drafting that chamber’s version of NASA’s next authorization bill. Authorizing legislation sets funding guidelines, which are not always heeded, for the congressional appropriations committees that determine NASA’s annual budget. Typically, such bills also contain policy directives.

Among the authorities NASA wants this year is something the Defense Department got last year as part of the National Defense Authorization Act for 2013: the ability to accept money from commercial entities who wish to incorporate their own upgrades into government-owned spaceports. 

The change would “allow NASA to accept funding from the private sector in order to develop, enhance, or maintain the U.S. Government’s launch, range instrumentation, and reentry sites,” the agency said in its list of legislative proposals. “[T]he government’s purchasing power would be enhanced through the increase in the economies of scale, as well as the benefit from receiving the additional up-front funding from the commercial launch provider prior to contracting.”

NASA also believes that private space companies — meaning those that qualify as “commercial providers” under U.S. law — could provide both a cash-infusion for the space program, and dependable custodianship for excess infrastructure the agency cannot afford to maintain, and which could not be had easily in commercial markets.

However, such a sale would only be considered when the NASA administrator determines a piece of property is no longer useful, and when turning it over to the private sector would “support the development and delivery of space-related activities and space transportation services by current or potential United States commercial providers,” according NASA’s legislative wish-list, a copy of which was obtained by SpaceNews.

Among the other legislative measures NASA is seeking are:

  • The authority to keep the technical details of safety-related investigations, such as mishap investigation boards, from public disclosure. “NASA collects safety-related information in many situations, including internal surveys, external surveys, and when a mishap investigation board takes witness statements,” NASA said, citing similar protection the Federal Aviation Administration enjoys for its Aviation Safety Action Program and Flight Operational Quality Assurance Program. “Protecting this type of information from public disclosure will encourage open and honest communication about risks and potential mishaps.”
     
  • Clearer authority to hold contractors responsible for rooting out counterfeit electronics parts. The measures NASA proposed would accomplish this “by assigning NASA contractors clear and full responsibility for detecting and avoiding the supply of counterfeit product,” according to NASA’s proposal. 

Meanwhile, government and industry sources said the current partisan deadlock over federal spending means there likely will be no NASA authorization bill this year, leaving Congress to find another legislative vehicle for nonspending NASA policies. 

The difficulty in reauthorizing NASA this year, according these sources, stems from the relatively frugal stance the Republican-controlled House Appropriations Committee has taken, compared with the Senate Appropriations Committee, where Democrats are in control. 

House leaders have limited spending for Commerce, Justice and Science appropriations accounts, of which NASA is one, to $47.2 billion for 2014, a level that reflects the ongoing effect of across-the-board sequestration cuts, which have not yet been altered by Congress. Senate leaders, on the other hand, have provided $52.3 billion for these accounts — $5.1 billion more than the House. 

The authorization bill produced by the House Science space subcommittee’s leadership assumes appropriators will have no more than the House-approved level to work with. However, NASA’s oversight committees in the Senate, as Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said June 19, are making no such assumptions, leading some to believe the two chambers of Congress will produce irreconcilable bills.

“They’re too far apart,” said one administration source, who asked for anonymity to discuss congressional activities.

An industry source agreed that a NASA authorization bill is far from a certainty this year, and added that a regular appropriation bill is even more unlikely.

Congressional staffers “are telling us to expect an omnibus appropriations [bill] for 2014,” the source said June 28.

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