WASHINGTON — With a new president on the horizon, a key Senate committee moved Wednesday to protect long-standing priorities of the nation’s space program from the potential upheaval of an incoming administration.
Members of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee passed a bipartisan bill authorizing $19.5 billion to continue work on a Mars mission and efforts to send astronauts on private rockets to the International Space Station from U.S. soil — regardless of shifting political winds.
Lawmakers haven't forgotten that President Obama, shortly after taking office, scrapped the Bush administration’s Constellation program that sought to send astronauts back to the moon. Many members of Congress felt stung by the cancellation and angry that Obama hadn't consulted them.
“We have seen in the past the importance of stability and predictability in NASA and space exploration, (and) that whenever one has a change in administration, we have seen the chaos that can be caused by the cancellation of major programs,” said Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican who chairs the subcommittee overseeing the space program. “The impact in terms of jobs lost, the impact in terms of money wasted has been significant.”
The $19.5 billion authorized for fiscal 2017 under the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2016 is the same amount approved by House appropriators and slightly more than the $19.3 billion approved by members of the Senate Appropriations Committee. It's not clear when the Senate bill will reach the floor, where it's expected to pass.
The Obama administration has proposed spending $19 billion on NASA programs.
Under the Senate bill, NASA would have an official goal of sending a crewed mission to Mars within the next 25 years, the first time a trip to the Red Planet would be mandated by law.
"Fifty-five years after President Kennedy challenged the nation to put a man on the moon, the Senate is challenging NASA to put humans on Mars,” said Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, senior Democrat on the Commerce panel. “The priorities that we’ve laid out for NASA in this bill mark the beginning of a new era of American spaceflight.”
Aside from Nelson and Cruz, the measure was co-sponsored by Republicans Marco Rubio of Florida and Roger Wicker of Mississippi and Democrats Gary Peters of Michigan and Tom Udall of New Mexico.
The legislation would authorize money for different NASA components, including $4.5 billion for exploration, nearly $5 billion for space operations and $5.4 billion for science.
The bill does not order NASA to scrap its controversial plan to send astronauts to an asteroid and collect samples by 2021. But it would require the agency to routinely report to Congress on the mission’s progress and justify why it's worth the $1.4 billion price tag.
Beyond money, the measure would:
• Direct NASA to continue working on the Space Launch System and Orion multi-purpose vehicle that are the linchpins of a planned mission to send astronauts to Mars by the 2030s. The bill includes specific milestones for an uncrewed exploration mission by 2018 and a crewed exploration mission by 2021.
• Require development of an advanced space suit to protect astronauts on a Mars mission.
• Continue development of the Commercial Crew Program designed to send astronauts to the space station — no later than 2018 — on private rockets launched from U.S. soil.
• Expand the full use and life of the space station through 2024 while laying the foundation for use through 2028.
• Allow greater opportunities for aerospace companies to conduct business in Low Earth Orbit.
• Improve monitoring, diagnosis and treatment of the medical effects astronauts experience from spending time in deep space.