For the first time in more than six years, Congress has passed an authorization act for NASA that calls for spending $19.5 billion on NASA for fiscal year 2017 and lays out a set of priorities of the agency.
The measure was approved by the House this week after getting Senate approval. The vote came five months into fiscal year 2017.
The measure, which will be sent to President Donald Trump, stipulates the following funding levels for the space agency:
- Exploration, $4,330,000,000.
- Space Operations, $5,023,000,000.
- Science, $5,500,000,000.
- Aeronautics, $640,000,000.
- Space Technology, $686,000,000.
- Education, $115,000,000.
- Safety, Security, and Mission Services, $2,788,600,000.
- Construction and Environmental Compliance and Restoration, $388,000,000.
- Inspector General, $37,400,000.
“The NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 reaffirms our support for the bold visions and commitments that will shape America’s future in space,” said House Science Committee Chairman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) in a statement.
“This bill reiterates the importance of maintaining NASA’s continuity of purpose to ensure America remains a leader in space exploration,” Smith added. “It also directs NASA to create a roadmap for human exploration and guides the future path of exploration for decades to come. With the passage of this bill, we take another step in making America great again. ”
Rep, Ami Bera (D-Calif.), ranking member of the Subcommittee on Space, praised the bill but noted its lack of focus on NASA’s Earth science research, an area that Congressional Republicans and the Trump Administration want to cut.
“For nearly 60 years, NASA has been one of our nation’s greatest symbols of American excellence and ingenuity, and I’m pleased that the NASA Transition Authorization Act will provide important funding stability for our mission in space and aeronautics,” Bera said. “That said, I believe this bill would have been better served by a comprehensive multi-mission outlook that includes Earth Science, Planetary Science, Astrophysics, and Heliophysics. I’m energized that this bill establishes a requirement for NASA to provide a Human Exploration Roadmap that lays out how we send humans to the surface of Mars – something that I believe we can, must, and will achieve.”
The act enshrines the Space Launch System and Orion spacecraft as the foundation of the nation’s expansion beyond low Earth orbit (LEO). It calls upon the NASA Administrator to develop a “human exploration roadmap, including a critical decision plan, to expand human presence beyond low-Earth orbit to the surface of Mars and beyond, considering potential interim destinations such as cis-lunar space and the moons of Mars.”
The measure also requires NASA to contract with an “independent, non-governmental systems engineering and technical assistance organization to study a Mars human space flight mission to be launched in 2033.”
The space agency is also instructed to evaluate the proposed Asteroid Robotic Redirect Mission (ARRM) to determine how scientific and technical objectives applicable to a human Mars mission could be met in other ways. ARRM is an Obama Administration program that Congress has never embraced.
NASA must also evaluate whether the Orion spacecraft could be launched on a rocket other than SLS on missions to the International Space Station (ISS). Orion is considered as a backup to the commercial crew vehicles being developed by Boeing and SpaceX.
The act notes the Obama’s Administration requests for the Commercial Crew Program were higher than what Congress provided for the program. The “credibility in the Administration’s budgetary estimates for the Commercial Crew Program can be enhanced by an independently developed cost estimate,” the bill states.
Congress also wants to free up hundreds of millions of dollars that NASA contractors have set aside to cover close out costs in the event the government decides to cancel a program for convenience. Large amounts of termination liability funding has been reserved for Orion, SLS, ISS and the James Webb Space Telescope.
“The Administration should vigorously pursue a policy on termination liability that maximizes the utilization of its appropriated funds to make maximum progress in meeting established technical goals and schedule milestones on these high-priority programs,” the legislation states.
The measure supports the To Research, Evaluate, Assess, and Treat Astronauts Act (TREAT Astronauts Act), which is a measure to provide former astronauts with continuing health monitoring to determine any long-term ill effects they might have suffered as a result of long-term stays in space.