Big win for NASA: Congress mandates a mission to Mars

The US Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee has passed a bipartisan bill that authorizes spending for a manned mission to Mars, but there’s a caveat: NASA must launch said mission within the next 25 years, the first time such a trip has been mandated by law.

According to USA Today and the Daily Mail, the budget allots $19.5 billion for the 2017 fiscal year to cover the costs of preparing for a crewed mission to the Red Planet, including continued development of Commercial Crew Program spacecraft designed to launch from US soil and the creation of an advanced space suit designed to better protect Mars mission personnel.

The bill also sets forth the goal of having an uncrewed SLS mission by 2018 and a crewed one by 2021. It would also support the full use of the International Space Station through 2024 (and possibly through 2028); require NASA to improve the monitoring, diagnosis, and treatment of adverse health effects related to space travel, and require the agency to provide regular updates on the progress of its asteroid relocation and sample collection mission.

“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, the ranking Democrat on the Committee. “The priorities that we’ve laid out for NASA in this bill mark the beginning of a new era of American spaceflight.”

Spending bill seeking stability against shifting political winds

According to USA Today, the bill – which authorizes a total of $4.5 billion for exploration, $5 billion for space operations and $5.4 billion for science projects – is also viewed as a safeguard against any possible attempt by the next president to undo the planned projects, in much the way that President Obama canceled a planned return to the moon upon taking office.

The newspaper notes that some members of Congress were bothered that the President failed to consult with them before officially terminating the Constellation program, an initiative launched in 2005 that intended to send an astronaut back to the moon by 2020. The proposed mission was scrapped in 2011 due to the reported need for a substantial increase in funding.

“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,” explained Sen. Ted Cruz, the Texas Republican who chairs the panel. “The impact in terms of jobs lost, the impact in terms of money wasted has been significant.”

The funding bill also looks to allow for better opportunities for aerospace companies to conduct business in Low Earth Orbit, according to the Daily Mail. A recent NASA report highlighting the projects in the work reveals that, in addition to the creation of spacecraft capsules, companies are developing new habitation modules for use in Low Earth Orbit, as well as around the moon.

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Image credit: NASA

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