Senate Passes NASA Authorization Bill as 116th Congress Comes to A Close

Senate Passes NASA Authorization Bill as 116th Congress Comes to A Close

The Senate passed an amended version of S. 2800, the NASA authorization bill, by unanimous consent this morning.  Sen. Ted Cruz acknowledged that the bill will not pass the House in the few remaining days of the 116th Congress, but expects it to serve as the starting point for legislation next year.

Speaking on the Senate floor, Cruz did not provide details of how the new version differs from what was approved by the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee last year, but his office released a copy later in the day.

Cruz (R-TX) chairs the Aviation and Space Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee.

During his floor speech, he praised his colleagues for coming together to craft a bill that enjoys the unanimous support of the Senate. He is proud that “the Senate is speaking with one unified voice in passing this legislation” despite partisan differences on so many other issues.

Two specific topics he mentioned are that it extends operation of the International Space Station from 2024 to 2030 and “challenges us to be the international leader for lunar and Mars exploration.” Overall, the bill “strengthens the United States’ leadership in space, ensuring that we remain the default space exploration partner of the world” and, indeed, strengthens not just human spaceflight, but all of NASA’s core missions, Cruz said.

A press release from his office summarized what the bill will do:

  • Support NASA’s human spaceflight and exploration efforts to return American astronauts to the Moon and prepare for future journeys to Mars.
  • Extend authorization for the International Space Station (ISS) through 2030 and direct NASA to take steps to grow the “space economy.”
  • Require the United States to maintain a continuous human presence in low-Earth orbit through and beyond the useful life of the ISS.
  • Support NASA’s leadership in coordinating the development of next generation spacesuits.
  • Leverage private sector investment to bolster human space exploration.
  • Authorize NASA’s Enhanced Use Leasing (EUL) authority. EUL allows companies to lease vacant or underutilized buildings owned by NASA with lease proceeds helping to fund capital improvements at the NASA centers.
  • Provide rapid acquisition authorities similar to those that have proven successful at the Department of Defense and other agencies.
  • Direct NASA to maintain and upgrade irreplaceable rocket launch and test infrastructure.
  • Support vital life and physical science research to ensure that humans can live in deep space safely.
  • Direct NASA to improve upon its planetary defense measures in order to protect Earth from asteroids and other near-Earth objects.
  • Affirm NASA’s commitment to aeronautics research by supporting a robust X-plane program as well as work on efficient propulsion concepts and advanced composites.
  • Support NASA’s STEM education and workforce efforts.

The bill generally supports the Artemis program to return astronauts to the lunar surface, but does not set a deadline like the Trump Administration’s goal of 2024. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) referred to that date in the committee’s press release, and Ranking Member Maria Cantwell (D-WA) also gave Artemis a shout-out, but the only mentions of the program by name in the bill itself are in a “sense of Congress” section.  It notes that NASA developed Artemis to fulfill the goal of landing the first woman and the next man on the Moon and collaborate with international and commercial partners to establish sustainable lunar exploration by 2028. It also calls on the Administration to ensure the program is inclusive and representative of all people in the United States including women and minorities.  Apart from that, it simply renames the first three launches as Artemis-1, -2, and -3 instead of EM-1, EM-2, and EM-3, the designations they had in the previous NASA authorization act.

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) applauded passage of the bill.  Audrey Powers of Blue Origin, who chairs CSF’s Board of Directors, said the bill “sends a strong message that partnerships with America’s commercial space sector provide NASA with the world’s most innovative and affordable technologies and solutions to achieve its ambitious missions across the solar system.”

The House version of the bill, H.R. 5666, was approved by the Space and Aeronautics Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee after a contentious markup in January 2020, but there has been no further action.  Based on Cruz’s remarks today, there apparently is no expectation that agreement is about to be reached, so the process will have to begin anew in the 117th Congress.


This article has been updated throughout.

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