NASA funding bill charts course to the moon, Mars and beyond
WASHINGTON — The U.S. House overwhelmingly approved sweeping new NASA legislation Tuesday, charting an ambitious course to the moon, Mars, “and beyond” while a slew of private space ventures vie for a bigger piece of the action in deep space.
The 146-page bill, shepherded through Congress by a number of prominent Texas Republicans, including Sen. Ted Cruz, seeks a balance between the government space agency and private sector upstarts like Blue Origin and SpaceX, which have set their sights on taking tourists to the moon.
Having cleared the Senate last month, the $19.5 billion NASA bill — the agency’s first major legislative tune-up in seven years — is bound for the White House, one of the first major policy initiatives from Congress to hit President Donald Trump’s desk. Both House and Senate versions passed on unanimous voice votes.
The bipartisan bill, following a Senate collaboration between Cruz and Florida Democrat Bill Nelson, would advance NASA’s development of the Space Launch System heavy-lift rocket and Orion crew vehicle for deep space exploration. It also would support development of commercial vehicles to transport astronauts to the International Space Station, ending the United States’ reliance on Russian launches.
Cruz said the bill provides “much-needed certainty” to the missions of the International Space Station and Johnson Space Center.
“We are also making a serious commitment to the manned exploration of space, laying the groundwork for the Mars mission, and enabling commercial space ventures to flourish, all of which will foster extraordinary economic growth and job creation throughout Texas,” he said.
It also is a boon for Cruz, who heads a Senate subcommittee on science and space. Coming off a spirited White House bid in 2016, Texas’ junior senator, who faces re-election next year, is known better as a national conservative crusader than for space exploration or pork-barrel projects.
“It’s a feather in his cap,” said Bob Mitchell, president of the Bay Area Houston Economic Partnership, which worked with Cruz on the legislation.
House aides said the bill also represents a compromise of sorts, spelling out the space agency’s “horizon” goal of sending humans to Mars, with or without the intermediary step of putting astronauts back on the lunar surface — a mission that got short shrift from former President Barack Obama, who famously said, “We’ve been there before.”
A return to the moon, more than four decades after the Apollo lunar program, could be a logistical stepping stone, particularly if it becomes a focus of the incoming Trump administration. SpaceX founder Elon Musk, along with Blue Origin founder Jeffrey Bezos and other commercial space operators are stepping forward to offer their services.
With prodding from the Trump White House, NASA recently has begun to consider adding a crew to next year’s inaugural Space Launch System mega-rocket flight, which includes a planned lunar orbit.
Although the commercial space industry enjoys growing support in Congress, the new NASA legislation could send a signal to players in the private sector that many lawmakers see it functioning mainly in low-earth orbit operations, such as ferrying astronauts to the space station in a government-led space program.
The bill directs NASA to submit plans to make low earth orbit — the province, so far, of all human spaceflight besides the Apollo program — less dependent on government support and more commercially viable. A late change to the bill clarified that NASA’s primary acquisition strategy for the commercial crew program is to get American astronauts to the space station “safely, reliably and affordably,” including for crew rescue missions.
Backers say that balance would free NASA to explore the moon, Mars and the rest of the solar system with its bigger, more powerful rockets.
“I’m pretty sure NASA’s going to want them to keep their eye on the ball and make sure they can deliver cargo and crew to the International Space Station,” Mitchell said.
As the private sector expands its horizons, the challenge for Congress will be finding the right equilibrium for the space program. Texas U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, said the new bill “pursues a balanced portfolio of programs and directs NASA to establish an exploration road map.”
Part of the road map directs NASA to study whether the 19-year-old space station can be extended to 2028, a move that would provide future stability for Houston’s Johnson Space Center, which provides mission control for the orbiting research platform and other space science activities.
House Space Subcommittee Chairman Brian Babin, whose district includes the Johnson Space Center, said the bill provides “long-term stability” for a high-skilled workforce after years of uncertainty about the goals of human space flight under the Obama administration.
Past presidential transitions have proved disruptive to NASA. Many Republicans in Congress still are smarting from Obama’s decision in 2010 to cancel President George W. Bush’s Constellation program intended to return astronauts to the moon. Obama opted instead to aim for Mars in the coming decades, along with an asteroid capture mission earlier. The new NASA legislation puts the asteroid mission in doubt.
NASA’s commitment to earth and planetary science, along with the James Webb Space Telescope, is expected largely to remain intact. Democrats, however, said they had hoped for a more comprehensive commitment to climate change research. While Smith has sought to refocus NASA on space rather than climate or earth science, the science panel’s ranking Democrat, Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas, said the bill will maintain NASA as a “multi-mission agency with programs in science.”
Despite widespread support in Congress, the NASA bill was delayed in the House one week to give the incoming Trump administration a chance to weigh in, according to GOP House aides.
The bill authorizes $19.5 billion for NASA this year, about $200 million more than the agency’s current budget.
That could run afoul of a White House call for across-the-board cuts in discretionary non-defense spending for the rest of 2017. The potential for NASA budget cuts remains to be seen as the government runs up against an April 28 spending deadline. Policy bills like Cruz’s do not actually provide money; rather, they set targets.