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New Bill Would Extend U.S. Operation of Space Station

The measure, called the NASA Authorization Act of 2019, is the work of a bi-partisan group of senators and directs Congress to provide the space agency with $22.8 billion for fiscal year 2020.

by Nick Powell, Houston Chronicle / November 7, 2019

(TNS) — A bipartisan group of senators proposed a bill Wednesday that would fund NASA for the next fiscal year and extend U.S. operations of the International Space Station through 2030.

The measure, called the NASA Authorization Act of 2019, is co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz and directs Congress to provide the space agency with $22.8 billion for fiscal year 2020.

The bill would, among other things, extend authorization for the space station through 2030 and direct NASA to take steps to grow the “space economy,” said Cruz, a Texas Republican who chairs the aviation and space subcommittee.

U.S. Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Maria Cantwell, both Democrats, and Roger Wicker, a Republican, are co-sponsors.

The NASA authorization bill is one step in a long budget process. If passed, it would still require Congress to pass an appropriations bill to fund the items listed in the bill. The $22.8 billion proposal for NASA’s budget marks a slight increase from last year’s $21.5 billion budget, which was $1.6 billion more than President Donald Trump's original 2019 proposal for the space agency.

Trump’s 2020 budget proposal included $21 billion for NASA, a slight decrease from 2019. He later requested an additional $1.6 billion to expedite NASA’s Artemis program to return humans to the Moon.

Federal funding for the 20-year-old space station currently is scheduled to end after 2024, but Congress can extend that date, and has in the past. Experts have said the space station can operate safely until at least 2030. The legislation calls for the U.S. maintaining “a continuous human presence in low-Earth orbit through and beyond the useful life of the ISS.”

Astronauts from the U.S., Russia, Japan, Canada and Europe serve on the space station, from which crews conduct a range of experiments.

The measure would also make NASA’s stated goal of returning to the Moon and a future journey to Mars a national goal.

“Not only will this legislation help ensure Americans safely return to the moon, it will help ensure America’s dreams of taking the first step on the surface of Mars become a reality,” Cruz said.

However, the bill identifies 2028 as the target date for a return to the lunar surface, a break from the Trump Administration’s stated goal of getting humans back to the Moon by 2024.

NASA has been scrambling to meet the expedited timeline in the wake of March comments by Vice President Mike Pence directing the agency to accelerate that timeline to 2024 using “any means necessary.” NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine has said the Artemis moon program could cost up to $30 billion, but the agency has not provided a budget plan to Congress.

The bill would also support the development of next-generation spacesuits, as well as life and physical science research, to ensure that humans can live in deep space safely. NASA engineers demonstrated the new Exploration Extravehicular Mobility Unit — or xEMU — spacesuits in Washington in October, which will allow astronauts to reach down and touch the lunar surface.

NASA has been working on new spacesuits for more than a decade — an effort that has stumbled, in part, because of inadequate funding. The suits currently worn by astronauts during spacewalks outside the space station are 40 years old and reaching the end of their lifespan.

The legislation also bolsters NASA’s efforts to detect asteroids that could threaten Earth in the near future. It directs NASA to develop a dedicated division to launch space-based infrared survey telescope to detect “near-Earth objects.”

©2019 the Houston Chronicle. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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