National Aeronautics and Space Administration Transition Authorization Act of 2017 that was recently signed into law may have grabbed headlines over the support for manned mission to Mars for NASA. But human exploration aside, the bill that was recently signed into law saw some major ramifications for climate change. What with Earth Science missions being stripped from NASA, Earth science budget clipped by 13% from 2017 and Asteriod Redirect Mission (stepping stone to Mars exploration) gets scrapped for alternative approach. Reportedly, it is the first of its kind bill to be passed in six-plus years (last authorization act was in 2010) saw a few takers and drew a lukewarm response from Mars enthusiast Elon Musk.
We bring you the highs and lows of NASA bill that saw its fair share of detractors; emphasized Trump’s pursuit of discovery in space, exposed the stance on climate change and underpinned US’s ambition in staying on top of the space race with manned mission to Mars, a move seen as a rejoinder to China’s space ambitions.
First up, here’s a recap of major highlights in the bill:
Manned Mission to Mars: Human exploration of Mars is ambitious goal of the bill, with the US space agency directed to be ready for manned mission near or on the surface of Mars by 2030s. The bill states, “The key U.S. objectives for human expansion into space shall include achieving human exploration of Mars and beyond through the prioritization of those technologies and capabilities best suited for such a mission”. The space agency has been directed to submit the initial human exploration roadmap, with a critical decision plan, by December 1, 2017.
NASA’s funding at $19.5 billion remains on track as compared to 2016. The crew vehicle tasked for managing human spaceflight programs to moon and Mars– Space Launch System (SLS) and the Orion multipurpose crew vehicle, get a budget allocation of $3.7 billion reportedly.
However, Trump’s space policy and budget didn’t fare very well with Mars enthusiast and SpaceX founder Elon Musk who drubbed the bill and termed, it changed nothing for what NASA is doing, “Existing programs stay in place and there is no added funding for Mars,” Musk tweeted.
NASA’s Commercial Crew Program: According to the bill, commercial space shall get a boost under Trump administration with the bill suggesting that “NASA shall make use of U.S. commercially provided ISS crew transfer and crew rescue services.” Under the bill, The Commercial Orbital Transportation Services Program has been rechristened to Commercial Resupply Services Program
Europa: NASA’s ambitious Jupiter mission that seeks habitability of the planet’s icy moon finds support in the bill that approved of the space agency’s plan to dispatch an orbiting satellite to find life under its ice ocean. Up next, missions that found a nod of approval were an uncrewed launch of SLS and Orion in 2018, followed by a crewed lunar mission in 2021.
TREAT Astronauts Act provides healthcare for life: TREAT Astronauts Act in the bill states that the space agency shall pay for the “medical monitoring and diagnosis of a former U.S. government astronaut or former payload specialist for conditions that NASA considers potentially associated with human space flight. The bill also mandates that NASA pay for scientific and medical tests for psychological and medical conditions.
Resurrection of National Space Council: National Space Council chaired by Mike Pence could have a lot of sway over space policy. Under the George W Bush era, the council functioned from 1989-93 and though Obama administration also promised to re-establish the space council, he didn’t deliver on the campaign promise. According to news reports, Pence confided Trump’s intention of setting up NSC, that would bring the best minds from NASA and private sector on board. Though speculations abound on the role of NSC, would space strategy be shaped from the White House or will the government architect American space strategy?
Here are some major lows the bill proposed
Earth Science program reduced: In a move that has caused a hue and cry in the scientific community, with the new law reportedly omitting NASA’s earth science programs. According to news sources, four major programs including Plankton, Aerosol, Cloud, Orbital Carbon Observatory-3 (OCO-3), Deep Space Climate Observatory (DSCOVR), and CLARREO Pathfinder missions are axed thus affecting climate research and exploration deeply. It’s practically everything that scientists feared crippling the scientific community. According to a statement by NASA acting administrator, “Overall science funding is stable, although some missions in development will not go forward and others will see increases. We remain committed to studying our home planet and the universe, but are reshaping our focus within the resources available to us – a budget not far from where we have been in recent years, and which enables our wide ranging science work on many fronts.”
NASA Office of Education scrapped: NASA’s office of education, that serves as a hotbed for next generation of budding scientists, astronauts and engineers has been scrapped under the new law. STEM education was seen central to building space talent and spawning the next generation of scientists and explorers. According to a statement by NASA acting administrator on the elimination of office, NASA will continue to inspire the next generation through missions and channel education efforts in a more focused way through the robust portfolio of our Science Mission Directorate.
Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) debunked: Introduced in 2013, Asteroid Redirect Mission was rolled out to further Mars exploration. The modus operandi was – developing a first-ever robotic mission to visit a large near-Earth asteroid, collect boulder from its surface and redirect it into a stable orbit around the moon. The mission, though ambitious drew skepticism from all quarters and had its fate sealed, experts cite.
Though the asteroid mission is not formally cancelled, with the bill supporting the solar electric propulsion efforts. According to a statement by Robert Lightfoot, NASA Acting Administrator, “We remain committed to the next human missions to deep space, but we will not pursue the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM) with this budget. We will continue the solar electric propulsion efforts benefitting from those developments for future in space transportation initiatives.” The bill stringly proposes finding alternative approaches to ARM that demonstrate the technologies and capabilities needed for a human mission to Mars.
Transitioning of International Space Station: Since it was first set up in 2000, the International Space Station (ISS) managed by Russia, US, Japan, European partners and Canada has served as an outpost for the world. But now its future hangs by a thread. According to news reports, NASA has spent $67 billion on the development of the station and the lab is used by private companies to test new vehicles and serves as a launchpad for developing new technologies. Reportedly, NASA spends between $3-4 billion as operational cost of ISS each year.
The bill mandates NASA to come up with a plan to “evaluate the preferred service life of ISS beyond September 30, 2024, through at least 2028, as a unique scientific, commercial, and exploration-related facility”. Also, the bill mandates NASA to “develop a plan for transitioning the ISS from the current regime that relies heavily on NASA sponsorship to where NASA could be one of many customers of a low-Earth orbit non-governmental human space flight enterprise.”
Parting thoughts – NASA under Trump
Though the US President was silent on space during his first 100-day agenda, experts cite the maker of “Make America Great Again” would use space to establish American supremacy. And seems like the human exploration of Mars being signed into law is a fitting rebuttal to China’s aggressive manned mission to moon.
According to news reports, NASA last sent humans into space in 1972, as part of the Apollo missions to the lunar surface. NASA has made significant strides in Obama and Bush era, developing powerful heavy-lift rockets, earth-observing satellites and interplanetary spacecraft, with experts pegging it as a golden age for space exploration. And NASA is also contracting rocket launches to private companies like SpaceX.
The bill showed Trump’s plan in preserving SLS and Orion and the Republican’s stance on climate change by axing NASA’s earth science program. Interestingly, the Earth Science division received a 50% boost under Obama administration. By diminishing earth science, Trump has mandated the agency to train its eyes on scientific explorations such as Europa (Jupiter moon mission) and the soon to be launched James Webb Space Telescope.
Congressional backing and powerful space advocates holds sway over the current bill.