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Spacenews.com's The sound and fury over a NASA authorization bill says that a NASA authorization bill isn't required and most years the US Congress doesn't pass one.

Question: If that's so, then what useful purpose do activities and deliberations NASA authorization bills serve?

However, left out of many discussions about the bill is this key fact: the bill doesn’t actually need to get through that legislative process. A NASA authorization bill is not required for the agency to operate, and most years Congress does not pass one.

That’s important because it’s unlikely that the bill would become law in anything like its current form. The House bill differs significantly from a NASA authorization bill introduced in the Senate in November, which lacks the language about a 2028 lunar return or how to develop a lunar lander. Assuming the Senate passes its NASA bill — it cleared the Senate Commerce Committee last year but hasn’t been taken up by the full Senate — it would need to be reconciled with the House bill.

Moreover, getting anything through the Senate requires a process known as unanimous consent, a streamlined approach that can be halted if just one senator objects. “Typically, all NASA bills, all space bills, pass by unanimous consent,” said Alicia Brown, a Democratic staff member on the Senate Commerce Committee, during a panel discussion last month at the Commercial Space Transportation Conference. “It’s a pretty high threshold.”

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These Authorizations are how Congress tells NASA what to do.

The bill is not "required" because if a new one isn't passed, there's no change in the orders the agency has from Congress. The bill was introduced because the sponsors want to give new directions to the agency and it is being deliberated and modified because all the Congresspeople who need to agreed on what those new directions should be, haven't.

According to that linked article, some of the things Congress wants include:

  • A requirement to go back to the moon by 2028 (compared to NASA current plan of 2024).
  • The government as the leader of the manufacture of a new lunar lander instead of public-private partnerships.
  • Moon operations limited to only those to support a further-future Mars mission.
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