A bipartisan group of United States senators, led by Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, has introduced the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2016. The other cosponsors of the bill include Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Florida, Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida, Sen. Gary Peters, D-Mich., Sen. Roger Wicker, R-Miss., and Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M. The act seeks to codify continuity of NASA programs, heading off the sort of disruptive changes by the next president such as the one perpetrated by President Barack Obama when he canceled the Constellation Space exploration program without consulting Congress.

Simply put, if President Donald Trump or President Hillary Clinton is thinking of canceling the Journey to Mars, the Orion deep spacecraft, or the heavy lift Space Launch System, they had best think again. However, within the broad parameters of staying the course toward Mars, the next president, and NASA administrator does have some wiggle room.

For instance, the act is going to direct NASA to come up with a plan to change low Earth orbit operations from a government-centric one to one that is driven by “a more commercially viable future.”

Also, while the Journey to Mars must proceed as swiftly as possible, the language of the bill adds “and other destinations” as targets of human space exploration.

Currently, NASA is still planning the Asteroid Redirect Mission to snag part of an asteroid, place it in lunar orbit, and then visit it with asteroids. The language of the bill casts doubt on the viability of the ARM and directs NASA to explore alternatives for using a solar electric propulsion system. One idea that has been advanced is a round trip robotic expedition to one or both of the moons of Mars.

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However, a number of studies suggest that a return to the lunar surface, to use water ice refined as rocket fuel, will make the Journey to Mars cheaper and simpler. Also, the moon is inherently an attractive venue for human space exploration. The language of the bill uses the term “cis-lunar space” which NASA regards as lunar orbit or the Lagrange points where the gravity of the Earth and moon cancel out.

While the bill does not mention the lunar surface, it does not rule out any effort toward that destination in support of the Mars program.

Other sections involve astronaut health during long-term space missions, planetary science including the James Webb Space Telescope, and cyber security. If the Senate passes the bill before the end of the current session it still needs to be reconciled with a House version and signed into law by the president.

 

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