NASA gets congressional backing to make that Mars mission happen

One of President Donald Trump’s most consistent policy positions has been on space exploration. “I will free NASA from the restriction of serving primarily as a logistics agency for low-Earth orbit activity—big deal,” he said at a rally in Florida the month before the election. “Instead, we will refocus its mission on space exploration. Under a Trump Administration, Florida and America will lead the way into the stars.”

That refocus on space exploration is important: Trump’s team has already indicated it wants NASA’s climate change department to cease its work in a crackdown on so-called “politicised science” – you could argue that depriving a department of research funding is the very definition of politicising science, but I digress.

Trump has also praised the work of the private sector in space travel, telling a 10-year-old in a Q&A that the private sector was “maybe even better” than government funded exploration. So NASA will be pleasantly surprised to see that a NASA authorisation bill has passed received congressional approval for the first time since September 2010 – and it includes a $208 million increase on the 2016 budget, taking the total to a whopping $19.508bn.

All that stands in the way of the money reaching NASA now is presidential sign-off. Even with Trump’s trademark changes of heart, that seems likely to pass unchallenged.

So what does congress want NASA to do with its money? The bill is 146 pages long, so there’s a lot in there, but the main headline is putting humans “near or on the surface of Mars in the 2030s” – a target that NASA has previously conceded looks like a long shot. Nonetheless, it’s there in black and white: “a human exploration roadmap should begin with low-Earth orbit, then address in greater detail progress beyond low-Earth orbit to cis-lunar space, and then address future missions aimed at human arrival and activities near and then on the surface of Mars.”

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Elsewhere in the bill, congress approves the space agency’s plan to send a probe to Jupiter’s Europa moon, alongside unmanned SLS and Orion spacecraft missions in 2018. There’s a long-term goal for NASA to “expand permanent human presence beyond low-Earth orbit,” and we’re looking to send a crew back to the moon in 2021 for a long-awaited sequel to the Apollo missions.

Elsewhere, there is a demand for NASA to work on options to “enable new transportation capabilities” – namely hypersonic and supersonic aircrafts. The agency is also encouraged to work on plans to improve its cybersecurity.nasa_bill_approved_by_congress_2017

While it’s possible the bill could still be vetoed by the president (there’s no mention of changes to climate change research in the text, for example), it seems unlikely that Trump will stand in the way of a bill that has rare bipartisan approval.

There’s little in the bill that NASA wasn’t noodling away on anyway, but deadlines, more budget and – most importantly – government backing will certainly help make those lofty ambitions more realistic.

Images: Neal Simpson and NASA Goddard used under Creative Commons

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