Houston Congressman John Culberson is one of four Republicans who wrote the bill. He says one of NASA's biggest problems is that it can't plan for the future without worrying every year whether the money to continue long-term projects will be included in the next budget.
"Our legislation will allow NASA to build rockets and spacecraft in the same way that the Navy builds submarines and aircraft carriers — with long-term procurement. That will bring stability and predictability to these contracts, and bring down the cost of NASA rockets and spacecraft, as well."
According to the Congressman, NASA has cancelled more than two dozen projects in the last 20 years. That has resulted in $20 billion wasted on programs that were started, but not finished. Culberson says he got that information from Mike Coats, the head of Johnson Space Center.
NASA could not confirm the Congressman's numbers on waste. It also says it has no position on the Space Leadership bill. But the non-partisan Government Accountability Office has been tracking problems with costs and budgets.
The GAO said in this year's report that the average NASA project is running about 15% over budget, and 8 months behind schedule.
Culberson blames that on a lack of continuity in leadership. Right now, the president appoints NASA administrators. Consequently, their terms are usually between four and eight years. Culberson's bill would change that by creating a new board which would pick three nominees — one of which would win presidential approval.
"The new director would serve for a ten-year term, as does the FBI director. The agency would be governed by a board of directors, like the National Science Foundation — and send their budget recommendations directly to Congress, bypassing the bean counters at the Office of Management and Budget."
Culberson says the changes would take the politics out of NASA's budget. But politicians would still choose who sits on the new, independent board. Those 11-members would be chosen for their backgrounds in space and aeronautics, like former astronauts and prominent engineers and scientists.
David Alexander is director of the Space Institute at Rice University. He says more stability in NASA leadership is a good place to start. But he says agency simply needs to stick to a long-term plan.
"You have to move up and down with the economy, of course, and you have to have some accountability, and make sure things aren't getting out of hand. But having that in place, to me, is what NASA needs, and the ten year appointment falls in line with that, but it doesn't create that."
Several political observers say the chances of the Space Leadership Preservation Act gaining much traction before the end of the year are slim. But Congressman Culberson hopes to at least get it through the committee phase. No Democrats were involved in writing the bill. However, several have signed on as co-sponsors, including Gene Green of Houston.