Congress Gives NASA 25 Years to Put People on Mars

NASA engineers celebrating successful landing of Phoenix Mars probe
David McNew / Getty Images

An influential congressional committee has approved a bill approving NASA’s requested whopping $19.5 billion 2017 budget. But the money comes with a pretty knotty string attached: Put people on Mars – in the next 25 years.

On September 21, the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation approved the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2016 by a unanimous voice vote.

The bill’s bipartisan supporters hope its $19.5 billion in funding will enable NASA to boldly go into the vast unknowns of a new presidential administration with enough money to continue its ongoing mission to Mars.

“We have seen in the past the importance of stability and predictability in NASA and space exploration—that whenever one has a change in administration, we have seen the chaos that can be caused by the cancellation of major programs,” stated Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), lead sponsor of the bill. “The impact in terms of jobs lost, the impact in terms of money wasted has been significant.”

While the bill must still be approved by whole Senate and the House of Representatives, the signs for passage and enactment are good. Its $19.508 billion NASA budget for fiscal year 2017 is the same amount already approved by the House and Senate Appropriations committees and meets the $19 billion included in President Obama’s annual budget proposal.

“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 Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Florida), 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.”

That Little Mars Trip Catch

Most significantly, the bill also requires NASA to develop a “framework” for space exploration which “shall” include “…an integrated set of exploration, science, and other goals and objectives of a United States human space exploration program with the long-term goal of human missions near to or on the surface of Mars in the 2030s …”

In October 2015, the space agency’s own inspector general had reported to Congress that NASA was ill-prepared for the challenges and dangers involved in sending humans to Mar and bringing them back alive.

In  the report, the inspector general criticized NASA for its failure to assign experts to work specifically on dealing with the many life and safety perils astronauts will face on the 3-year long trip to Mars and back. “A mission to Mars and back will take at least 3 years, but the current maximum shelf life for NASA’s prepackaged foods is only 1.5 years.”

In response, lawmakers added a “Sense of Congress” measure to the NASA funding bill stressing to the space agency that “advancing propulsion technology would improve the efficiency of trips to Mars and could shorten travel time to Mars and reduce astronaut health risks, reduce radiation exposure, consumables, and mass of materials required for the journey.” In other words, get them there and back faster or forget it.

And a Few Other Notable Catches

The specifically “spacey” parts of the bill fund: $4.5 billion for space exploration, almost $5 billion for space operations, and $5.4 billion for space sciences.

The bill also preserves funding for NASA’s controversial $1.4 billion plan to land people on asteroids and bring back samples by 2021. However, it also requires NASA to regularly send reports showing progress on the project in order to justify continued funding.

NASA says the manned missions to asteroids will serve as a “proving ground” for the trip to Mars in addition to helping scientists investigate how planets formed and how life began, as well as improve our understanding of asteroids that could impact Earth.

Finally, tired of seeing them riding to the International Space Station (ISS) and back onboard Russian-made spacecraft driven by Russian cosmonauts, the bill requires NASA to start shuttling U.S. astronauts to the ISS on private spacecraft launched from American soil by no later than the end of 2018.

“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. The priorities that we’ve laid out for NASA in this bill mark the beginning of a new era of American spaceflight,” said an optimistic Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, senior Democrat on the Commerce panel.