Both the US Senate and the House have approved a bill that will send $US19.508 billion ($25.97 billion) to NASA and sets some very ambitious directives. All that's standing between the space agency and getting to work is a presidential sign off.
According to Space News, the bill received no vocal opposition on the floor of the House despite its $US208 million ($276.9 million) increase of the budget from 2016. The Senate gave its unanimous approval on February 17.
Among other things, the budget demands that NASA create a plan to put humans "near or on the surface of Mars in the 2030s". Most specifically, the bill mandates "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". The section on Mars also instructs NASA to move away from its Asteroid Robotic Redirect Mission and to find ways to apply the progress on that project to the Mars directive.
What else is in the bill? A lot. It's 146 pages long. Let's just run through some of the highlights that jump out. The plan to send a probe to Jupiter's moon Europa is approved. A vague directive for NASA "to expand permanent human presence beyond low-Earth orbit" is included under long-term goals along with a call for "a thriving space economy in the 21st Century". And missions to launch the SLS and Orion spacecraft without a crew are set for 2018. A crewed mission that would go to the Moon would come next, with a goal of it happening in 2021.
On the more practical end of things, the bill asks NASA to work on building hypersonic and supersonic aircraft that would "enable new transportation capabilities". It also asks the agency to develop a plan to enhance its cybersecurity protections. An interesting inclusion considering the recent episode in which a scientist from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory recently had his work phone compromised by border agents.
'.Norm Nelson is interested in what makes the oceans tick. As a biological oceanographer at UC Santa Barbara, his research draws connections between sunlight and phytoplankton, the tiny green microbes that power the marine carbon cycle. There are plenty of outstanding questions Nelson wants to pursue — but after 30 productive years, his days as a scientist may be numbered..'
There's a lot of exciting stuff in the bill. It isn't necessarily calling for things that NASA hasn't already been working on, but its reassuring to see deadlines, a budget increase and ambitious support coming out of congress.
In regards to that presidential signature, there is a possibility that Trump would veto this bill. The administration has indicated that it wants to eliminate the Earth Science division of NASA that studies climate change among other things. The bill that passed yesterday doesn't mention that at all. So, maybe Trump will just forget that was part of his agenda. The good news is he paid lip service to space exploration in his recent address to Congress and he also has a lot of bigger problems to worry about at the moment.