When the U.S. Senate passed a quadrennial NASA Authorization bill Saturday it was too late for it ever to get adopted, since the House of Representatives already had adjourned for the session, but the bipartisan bill with bi-cameral input was intended as a message to the Donald Trump White House about Congress’s priorities for NASA.
The bill made it clear that Congress – at least those who made up the legislature for the now-ended 114th Congress – wants continuity over the next few years for key space agency programs, notably those aimed at getting humans into deep space. That means continued progress on developing the Space Launch System deep-space rocket, the Orion deep-space astronaut capsule, and several other deep-space projects, including a satellite visit to the Jovian moon Europa.
The U.S. Senate unanimously passed the NASA Transition Authorization Act, Senate Bill 3346, on Saturday, which would have authorized $19.6 billion for NASA in 2017. The bill had been sponsored by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican who chairs Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation. Florida’s U.S. senators, Democrat Bill Nelson and Republican Marco Rubio, were among eight co-sponsors.
“I am proud to have worked with my colleagues in introducing this bill, and look forward to advancing our nation’s space program in the next Congress,” Rubio stated afterwards.
With this bill, he and the 114th Congress left a priorities list for the 115th and for Trump, who has not spelled out much of his space policy yet.
* Continued progress in developing the SLS rocket and Orion, keeping NASA shooting for an unmanned launch of the pair in late 2018, and a crewed launch to go around the moon in 2021. In addition, the bill pushes for a “heavy lift” version of the SLS rocket, which would use addition rocket boosters, essentially from the space shuttle program, to give the rocket the ability to send very big items into deep space.
The bill says Congress wants a strategic plan out of NASA by the end of 2017 explaining how it intends to get humans onto Mars by the 2030s.
* Eventually, the bill states, NASA needs to look at longterm goals to create a permanent human presence beyond lower-Earth orbit, even a “peaceful settlement of a location in space or another celestial body,” according to a committee report filed by U.S. Sen. John Thune, the South Dakota Republican.
Consequently, the bill had proposed increasing funding 12 percent for NASA’s space exploration directorate, while making trims elsewhere in the space agency’s budget, notably in NASA’s Earth science programs.
Naturally, the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, a lobbying group that represents many of the interests and corporations involved in developing the SLS, Orion and other deep space programs, expressed strong support.
“There is no clearer signal of the continued Congressional support for NASA’s human exploration and deep space science programs than the Senate’s passage of the NASA Transition Authorization Act,” Mary Lynne Dittmar, the coalition’s executive director, stated in a news release Monday. “This bill is the product of hard work by Senators Thune, Nelson, Cruz and [Michigan’s Democrat Gary] Peters, as well as the full Commerce & Transportation Committee and their staff, and their work to pass this bill before the 114th Congress adjourns shows their commitment to NASA and ensuring continued progress on NASA’s core exploration capabilities.”
* Continued development of the James Webb Space Telescope, NASA’s planned but over-budget and behind-schedule replacement for the Hubble Space Telescope.
* Continued support of the International Space Station through the year 2024.
* Continued support of NASA’s commercial resupply program, which has SpaceX, Orbital ATK and soon Sierra Nevada Corp. running delivery services to the space station. And continued support of NASA’s commercial crew program, which is to soon have SpaceX and Boeing running a taxi service for astronauts headed to and from the space station.
* Continued support for the 2020 Mars Rover mission, and the Wide Field Infrared Survey Telescope, a planned space observatory that would be used to delve into deep physics questions.
* Continued support for NASA to continue transforming Kennedy Space Center and the space agency’s launch center in Virginia into multi-user space ports open to private companies’ launches and landings.