US President Donald Trump today signed a bill authorising US$19.5 billion dollars in funding for Nasa - the first such authorisation bill for the space agency in seven years.
The bill more or less aligns with the budget blueprint Trump laid out last week. Nasa won't face the same cuts as other science and medical agencies, which stand to lose huge portions of their budget under the President's proposal.
Sending humans to Mars by the 2030s remains Nasa's long-term goal, and Congress will continue to fund the construction of the Space Launch System rocket and Orion crew capsule for that mission.
"I think it's really more of a vote for stability," said Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. He noted that the passage of the last Nasa authorisation bill in 2010 was fairly chaotic, since it involved ending the Constellation programme that would have sent astronauts to the moon.
This year's bill left Nasa's Earth science budget untouched - for now. Earth science would see a 5 per cent cut in the president's blueprint, and Trump made it clear that he thinks Nasa should be focused on deep space, not Earth.
"It's been a long time since a bill like this has been signed reaffirming our national commitment to the core mission of Nasa, human space exploration, space science and technology," he said. Later he added, "We support jobs. It's about jobs."
Vice-President Mike Pence said at the bill signing that he will be heading a revamped National Space Council, an advisory board that serves as a go-between for Nasa and the White House that hasn't operated since George H.W. Bush was President. It's not clear yet when the council will be established, or how it might promote the President's space policy.
Pace, who served on the space council under Bush 41, said that the council helps address issues that cut across multiple federal agencies; for example, questions about cooperation on the International Space Station (ISS) that would involve both Nasa and the State Department.
The authorisation bill directs Nasa to keep its sights on a human mission to Mars in 2033 (though it doesn't specify whether that would be a landing or just a visit to Mars orbit). But Congress wants the space agency to come up with an alternative to the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), which was supposed to send humans to lunar orbit as a steppingstone toward the Red Planet. Nasa doesn't need to be told twice - after the blueprint budget included no funding for ARM, acting administrator Robert Lightfoot announced that Nasa will no longer pursue that mission.
But that means Nasa is looking for other "intermediate" stops on the path from Earth to Mars. Will the moon be one of them? At the President's request, Nasa is currently studying the feasibility of adding astronauts to the first test flight of the SLS rocket, which is slated to fly around the moon next year.
We're off to Mars, says Trump https://t.co/MIJITn166t— Daily Mail US (@DailyMail) March 21, 2017
The authorisation bill mandates that Nasa can't acquire space flight services from a foreign entity unless there are no Nasa vehicles or US commercial providers available. It also directs the space agency to look into ways to boost the private space industry.
Trump is not personally interested in a trip to space (though he's willing to send Congress)
During the bill signing, Trump turned to Senator Ted Cruz to comment on the difficulty of being an astronaut.
"I don't know Ted, would you like to do it?" he asked. "I don't think I would."
Cruz shook his head, so Trump looked at Senator Marco Rubio.
"Marco, do you want to do it?"
Rubio also declined. Both senators are co-sponsors on the bill, and their states are home to two major Nasa centres: Johnson Space Centre in Houston and Kennedy Space Centre in Cape Canaveral.
"You could send Congress to space," Cruz suggested, apparently disregarding the fact that he's a member of Congress.
"We could," Trump said. "What a great idea that could be."