Congressional Republicans don't like the Obama Administration's policy on space exploration. With less than 6 weeks to go for the U.S. presidential elections, some of those lawmakers have translated their criticisms into a bill that would create a new management structure to govern NASA.
The Space Leadership Act is co-sponsored by six members of the U.S. House of Representatives, including Representative Frank Wolf (R-VA), who chairs the House appropriations subcommittee that is responsible for NASA's budget. The bill proposes an 11-member board—selected by both houses of Congress and the president—that would prepare a draft budget for the space agency to be submitted simultaneously to the legislative and executive branches. The board would also be responsible for selecting a list of candidates for the positions of NASA administrator, deputy administrator, and chief financial officer, from which the president would choose. The bill would also grant the administrator a fixed, 10-year term rather than the current, open-ended appointment.
The bill's provisions echo the dissatisfaction that many Republican and some Democratic lawmakers have expressed over the Administration's stewardship of the space program. In hearings earlier this year, for example, Wolf and other appropriators criticized the Administration's decision to scale back NASA's plans to explore Mars robotically later in the decade and questioned its commitment to continued human exploration. Some lawmakers believe that White House budget officials have been given undue influence over NASA's strategic plans. The sponsors of the new bill say that its proposed management structure will help protect the space program from what critics currently see as harmful political influence.
"The U.S. enjoyed 40 years of unquestioned dominance in space, but the 21st Century has already seen increased competition from other countries, including those that don't share our democratic institutions or values—like China," Wolf said in a press statement last Thursday. "This status quo has to change, and the Space Leadership Preservation Act is our effort to start a national conversation on this very necessary reform effort."
In concept, the new board is intended to mirror the National Science Board (NSB), which oversees the National Science Foundation. But NSB simply reviews the agency's budget request, and it does not pick candidates to lead the agency.
Marcia Smith, a space policy expert who runs SpacePolicyOnline.com, says changing NASA's governance structure is unlikely to make legislators any happier about decisions made by the executive branch. "The issues facing NASA today are not the result of NASA's management organization or how long its Administrator serves," Smith says. "It's because of policy changes proposed by the White House, resisted by Congress, and a compromise to do both that is unaffordable."