After almost six and a half years, Congress has passed a NASA authorization bill for the first time, and it’s now on its way to the desk of President Donald Trump for his signature.
Passed by the U.S. House of Representatives March 7, the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 originated in the Senate (S.442, sponsored by Sen. Ted Cruz and seven co-sponsors) and was passed last Feb. 17 there. On Tuesday, the bill was passed in the House of Representatives through a voice vote and with nobody speaking out against it.
Stamp Of Approval
The bill, once signed by Trump, recommends a $19.5 billion spending for the U.S. space agency in fiscal year 2017. NASA is currently operating under an ongoing resolution setting its 2017 budget at $19.2 billion or 2016 levels.
The newly approved act establishes policy that directs NASA’s activities, including a detailed initiative for long-term human space exploration and its manned Mars mission. It also contains language that directs a study to harness Orion as a crew transfer vehicle for the International Space Station once NASA’s Commercial Crew Program suffers further delays.
It also provides the space agency the ability to have a long-term medical tracking of its former astronauts.
“The [act] reaffirms our support for the bold visions and commitments that will shape America’s future in space,” said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, House Science Committee chair.
This is the first NASA authorization to pass both houses of Congress after the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, which was passed back in September 2010 almost two months following its Senate version. From there, several authorization bills emerged but none passed the Senate.
According to some sources in the Congress, S.442 has the White House’s support. While NASA’s 2018 funding status is yet to be officially announced, worries surround the agency’s budget amid projected budget cuts for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
At the same time, the president previously articulated a $54 billion increase for the defense department.
NASA Space Initiatives
Space insiders like Mary Lynne Dittmar, who helms the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, lauded the passage of the bill and deems it “a clear message” to the American public and its international partners of the nation’s commitment to space exploration.
S.422 is by no means a perfect bill despite its broad support, according to science committee member Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Texas. Johnson cited, for instance, that NASA’s earth science and heliophysics programs were not directly addressed by the bill.
Included in the 146-page document are the following sections:
1. "Assuring Core Capabilities For Exploration," which calls for missions including an unmanned launch of the Space Launch System and Orion next year, a manned moon mission in 2021, and additional trips to the moon and Mars afterward;
2. “Journey to Mars,” which seeks a NASA road map for sending humans to Mars by 2033 and away from plans of pursuing the Asteroid Redirect Mission, which will capture an asteroid and have astronauts explore it while in orbit around Earth;
3. “Europa,” which green-lights plans to probe Jupiter’s icy moon Europa and its potential alien life source, a warm subsurface ocean; and
4. “Near-Earth Objects,” urging the agency to speed up its program that hunts down killer space asteroids.