Congress has passed a NASA Authorization Act for the first time in six years with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Transition Authorization Act of 2017, formally known as S.442. Besides setting this year’s NASA budget at $19.508 billion, this authorization confirms projects and goals that NASA is already working on, such as the Journey to Mars. Although President Trump has hinted at support for crewed missions to Mars, he will now have to decide whether he is willing to turn his words into action by signing this bill.
Asteroid Redirect Mission Scrapped?
The NASA Transit Authorization Act of 2017 calls for a concrete roadmap for the Journey to Mars and steers NASA away from performing the Asteroid Redirect Mission, which would have called for capturing an asteroid and bringing it within the vicinity of the Moon for astronauts to explore. The Asteroid Redirect Mission had been criticized for ballooning costs, slipping schedules, and possible redundancy with the OSIRIS-Rex probe, which is on track to take a small sample from an asteroid called Bennu in 2018 and return it to Earth in 2023. Those who follow NASA’s endeavors closely were also left wondering what the Asteroid Redirect Mission would have contributed to the Journey to Mars and whether it would have been worth the risk to astronauts who would have had to work on an object with a very low escape velocity.
Amended Goals for NASA
The bill has modified NASA’s goals to include the “search for life’s origin, evolution, distribution, and future in the universe.” In this way, Congress has confirmed exploration efforts already being pursued by NASA, such as searching for water on Mars and discovering exoplanets that may support life, such as the ones that orbit within TRAPPIST-1’s “Goldilocks zone.”
Toward this end, the authorization act approves of NASA’s plan to send an exploratory prove to Europa to learn more about a possible liquid water ocean over this moon’s layer of ice and any life that may exist in this ocean. It also supports the planned Mars 2020 Rover. Congress also calls for NASA to clarify its goals for the James Webb Telescope.
Is Congress Finally Taking Killer Asteroids Seriously?
In the wake of a few close calls with near-Earth objects that could have caused significant damage to Earth if they had struck, Congress has confirmed its 2005 mandate that NASA should build the capacity to detect 90% of “killer” asteroids. This may be partly a response to criticism that Congress is not providing enough funding for projects such as the rejected NEOCam, which would have been capable of detecting asteroids that are larger than 460 feet (140 meters) across.
On the flip side, Congress has asked NASA to clarify future plans on its use of Plutonium-238 to provide nuclear power for deep space robotic missions. While international law does forbid the building of space-based nuclear weapons, NASA is clearly not in the business of building illegal nuclear weapons or even causing an “unfortunate accident” involving a nuclear reactor. Its track record in this regard includes the nuclear-powered Curiosity Rover, which is a peaceful Mars Rover that is minding its own business while exploring Mars. So Congress may be a bit paranoid on this one.
This Funding Package Still A Small Part of the Federal Government’s National Budget
The $19.508 billion that has been authorized for this year’s NASA budget still stands at less than a percentage point for total federal spending. By way of comparison, the ten private corporations with the largest advertising budgets spent a total of $46.4 billion on advertising and marketing in 2016 – and that’s just the top ten! So it wasn’t too out of line for some private space ventures to think that some of those advertising dollars could reasonably be applied to their particular vision for space.
Supporters of NASA and space exploration may consider contacting their U.S. Senator or Representative to encourage members of Congress to support NASA. It may be helpful to point out that many defense contractors, such as Lockheed-Martin and the United Space Alliance, also provide services for NASA, so they won’t lose anything due to an increase in NASA’s budget. NASA is also earning a good reputation for supporting small businesses that need additional investment to develop innovations that they could bring to a market that includes both private and public space ventures. This is the kind of thing that could convince Congress to continue and expand support for NASA in the wake of passing the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Transition Authorization Act of 2017.