NASA’s priorities are vulnerable to new presidential administrations, but a bill debated today in Congress could make it more difficult for the White House to alter the agency’s long-term goals. The bill is called the Space Leadership Preservation Act, and it’s designed to give Congress more direct power over NASA's projects and policy-making processes. According to the author of the bill, these changes are supposed to help prevent NASA's initiatives from being canceled whenever a new president takes office.
President Obama redirected NASA once he was sworn in
The House Science Committee discussed the merits of the bill in a hearing today, though a few members were divided on whether this new legislation is the best fix for NASA. Many witnesses and committee members justified the bill based on how President Obama redirected NASA once he was sworn in. Under President Bush, NASA had been working toward a return to the Moon with the Constellation program. Then in 2010, President Obama canceled the Moon initiative and redirected NASA toward a Mars mission instead. The decision to cancel Constellation was not discussed with Congress but was decided in secret by the White House, claimed Mike Griffin, NASA's administrator prior to the cancellation, who was a witness at the hearing. He claimed the policy change sent NASA into disarray, and that the agency hasn't fully recovered.
To prevent such drastic changes, the new act would create a board of directors for NASA; Congress would pick between eight members, while the president can appoint three. These board members cannot be employed by companies that hold contracts with NASA — such as SpaceX or Boeing. Members are also prevented from working at any of these companies for two years once they leave the board.
The new NASA board would make the agency's budget requests each year, and then send the requests to both Congress and the president. If the president has any changes to the budget request, the White House must provide detailed justifications for the differences. Right now, the White House comes up with NASA's yearly budget request based on input from NASA’s various agencies, before sending the request on to Congress. The new board of directors would also be responsible for finding a pool of candidates for the NASA administrator position. Currently, the NASA administrator is a presidential appointment, but the new act would limit the president to picking from the board's candidate pool. Whichever administrator is chosen would then have a fixed 10-year term limit, in order to outlast the average eight-year presidential administration.
The new act would create a board of directors for NASA
These changes are meant to make NASA less political and more professional, said Representative John Culberson (R-TX), the author of the legislation. He said the new board of directors would serve as a more representative form of leadership for NASA than the White House. Since the board would be filled with former astronauts and scientists from NASA, they could recommend to Congress the proper ways to really make the agency's vision become a reality, said Culberson.
However, not everyone in the committee agreed that such a board would be helpful for stabilizing NASA. Representative Eddie Johnson (D-TX) said that having a board of directors appointed by Congress would introduce partisan politics into NASA's decisions. And she wasn't sure how such a small group of people would be able to come up with a detailed budget for a $19 billion agency. Johnson also argued that having administrators carry over from previous presidential administrations wouldn't help to preserve stability. Still, Johnson agreed that NASA needs to be less vulnerable to political revolving doors.
Criticizing how NASA is run has been a theme of the Science Committee's recent hearings. Earlier this month, the committee ripped apart NASA's Journey to Mars initiative, arguing that the program didn't have a clear timeline. Now, this new legislation would give Congress the power to alter that Mars plan without as much interference from the White House.