Private and commercial space ventures have been garnering headlines in the United States for months now, but last week NASA took a big step toward getting back in the fight as congress passed the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017, authorizing $19.5 billion dollars in spending for the space agency in 2017 and providing guidance on what are to be the focal points of the organization moving forward.

The bill, which increases NASA’s budget by a billion dollars from 2016 and rings in at $700 million more than NASA’s early internal projections, calls on the space fairing organization to reprioritize some of its efforts, and possibly even nix some plans still in development if they’re unable to properly demonstrate the value they provide toward reaching clearly laid out objectives.  The funding comes with an expectation that NASA develop a detailed plan for human exploration programs, with a particular emphasis on putting human beings on Mars.

“This bipartisan and bicameral bill grew to maturity through many long and serious discussions about the future of our nation’s space program,” said Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), chairman of the House space subcommittee, during discussion about the bill before it was voted on. “I’m encouraged by the bill’s persistent emphasis on the continuity of purpose and stability.”

Provisions in the bill include the requirement for a “roadmap” that entails how NASA plans to get humans “near or on the surface of MARS IN THE 2030s,” as well as continued emphasis on the SLS, or Space Launch System, which promises to be one of the largest rockets the United States has ever produced.  The SLS will couple with the Orion space capsule, which is expected to be NASA’s primary people-carrier for missions to deep space, the moon, and even Mars.  The bill also stipulates that NASA must consider the possibility of using the Orion capsule to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station, as private contractors like SpaceX have yet to demonstrate an ability to do so – despite already selling seats for a private trip around the moon in 2018.

Included in the bill are requirements for NASA to test the SLS and Orion in 2018, send a manned mission to the moon in 2021, and establish a more permanent human presence beyond low earth-orbit.  It also includes plans to send another rover to Mars and a probe to Europa, which many scientists believe may actually harbor life beneath its frozen exterior.

“The NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 reaffirms our support for the bold visions and commitments that will shape America’s future in space,” Representative Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science Committee, said in a statement after the bill’s passage. “This bill reiterates the importance of maintaining NASA’s continuity of purpose to ensure America remains a leader in space exploration.”

This bill is the first NASA authorization act to successfully pass both houses of Congress since 2010, and saw no objections on the floor.  The bilateral support was the product of extensive work behind the scenes by Lamar Smith and Ted Cruz, who spent months trying to smooth out any issues with House representatives before it went to a vote.

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“Today’s approval of the NASA Transition Authorization Act by Congress sends a clear message to the American people and our international partners that our nation remains committed to NASA’s space exploration program,” Mary Lynne Dittmar, executive director of the Coalition of Deep Space Exploration, said in a statement last week.

President Trump will need to sign the bill into law in order for it to take effect.  Reports indicate that the bill has already received support from the White House, so its passage seems likely.

 

Image courtesy of NASA