On 7 March, the House passed the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 (S. 442), marking the first NASA authorization bill to pass Congress in more than six years. The Senate passed the same act by unanimous consent on 17 February.
Approved by voice vote in the House, S.442 authorizes $19.5 billion in discretionary spending for NASA programs in fiscal year 2017. More significantly, however, the bill provides long missing policy guidance on NASA’s mission focus and program priorities.
Key program authorizations include $4.3 billion for space exploration, $5.5 billion for space science, $640 million for aeronautics-related R&D, and $686 million for spa ce technology.
Whereas NASA has been under considerable pressure in recent years to prioritize a Mars mission, the NASA Transition Act calls for a “balanced portfolio” of space exploration and space science, and characterizes NASA as a “a multi-mission space agency,” which “should have a balanced and robust set of core missions in space science, space technology, aeronautics, human space flight and exploration, and education.”
The following goals are outlined to guide NASA’s human space flight and exploration efforts:
- “To expand permanent human presence beyond low-Earth orbit and to do so, where practical, in a manner involving international, academic, and industry partners;
- “Crewed missions and progress toward achieving the goal in paragraph (1) to enable the potential for subsequent human exploration and the extension of human presence throughout the solar system; and
- “To enable a capability to extend human presence, including potential human habitation on another celestial body and a thriving space economy in the 21st Century.”
The bill expresses Congress’s sense of the need for strategic planning to achieve “human missions to Mars in the 2030s,” and calls on NASA to prepare a Mars 2033 Report” and define “a series of sustainable steps and conducting mission planning, research, and technology development on a timetable that is technically and fiscally possible.” NASA is also directed to develop a human exploration roadmap, with a critical decision plan, designed 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 bill supports “full and complete utilization of the International Space Station (ISS) through at least 2024.”
With respect to servicing the ISS and other low-earth orbit assets, the bill puts restrictions on procurement of foreign launch services and directs that “the Nation’s human space flight program must acquire the capability to launch U.S. government astronauts on vehicles using U.S. rockets from U.S. soil as soon as is safe, reliable, and affordable to do so.”
At the same time, the bill includes a finding that the “Commercial Crew Program has made measurable progress toward reestablishing the capability to launch U.S. government astronauts from U.S. soil into low-Earth orbit by the end of 2018.” The bill also expresses the sense of Congress that “an orderly transition for U.S. human space flight activities in low-Earth orbit from the current regime, that relies heavily on NASA sponsorship, to a regime where NASA is one of many customers of a low-Earth orbit commercial human space flight enterprise may be necessary.”
The bill calls for NASA to develop a plan to meet its needs for projected space communication and navigation needs for low-Earth orbit and deep space operations for the next twenty years.
As part of a balanced space science portfolio, the bill clarifies NASA’s space science mission to include “the search for life’s origin, evolution, distribution, and future in the universe”; and expresses support for a wide array of other programs, including planetary science, the James Webb Space Telescope, the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, the Mars 2020 Rover, astrobiology, threats from near-Earth objects, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy, and the development of radioisotope power systems.
The bill concludes that support for “a robust aeronautics research portfolio will help maintain the United States’ status as a leader in aviation, enhance the competitiveness of the United States in the world economy, and improve the quality of life of all citizens.” Aeronautics priorities include transformative aeronautics research, and research related to technologies for hypersonic, supersonic and rotorcraft flight.
Space technology priorities in the bill include infusing new technologies and capabilities (especially space propulsion technologies) into NASA’s core missions to make them more affordable and reliable, with a special emphasis on “early stage innovation, fundamental research, and technologies to expand the boundaries of the national aerospace enterprise.”
Although the bill sailed through the Senate and passed in the House by voice vote with bipartisan support, some Democratic House leaders expressed reservations about the bill. “It is not a perfect bill,” according to Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), ranking member of the House Science Committee, who expressed concern at the bill’s failure to address NASA’s earth science and heliophysics programs, and about the funding levels set for the space science, aeronautics and space technology accounts. Other observers are skeptical that congressional appropriators will be able to provide the funding authorized for NASA in the federal discretionary budget, and may make FY 2017 budget appropriations consistent with their own sense of NASA priorities.