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21 Mar, 2017 22:53

Trump signs NASA funding bill to send astronauts to Mars

Trump signs NASA funding bill to send astronauts to Mars

President Donald Trump has signed a bill authorizing $19.5 billion in funding for NASA, which includes an increased focus on deep space exploration and a new goal of a manned mission to Mars.

The NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017, or S. 442, provides funding for fiscal year 2018, which begins October 1. It specifically appropriates money for NASA’s deep space exploration, including the Space Launch System and the Orion spacecraft, as well as for the ongoing medical monitoring and treatment of astronauts. It builds on the current public-private partnership for space, with commercial companies transporting American astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) and NASA focusing on deep space and the mission to Mars.

“For almost six decades, NASA’s work has inspired millions and millions of Americans to imagine distant worlds and a better future right here on Earth. I’m delighted to sign this bill,” Trump said. “With this legislation, we support NASA’s scientists, engineers, astronauts and their pursuit of discovery. We support jobs. It’s about jobs, also.”

The focus on medical monitoring was the brainchild of former NASA astronaut Scott Kelly, who spent nearly a year in space. He asked members of the House of Representatives to “take care of us” and keep medical data so that NASA can make future adjustments for astronauts aboard the ISS and beyond, recalled Representative Brian Babin (R-Texas), the chair of the House Science, Space and Technology Subcommittee on Space.

The signing was attended by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, including Senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Marco Rubio (R-Florida) and Bill Nelson (D-Florida), a former astronaut. The two states will receive a boost in funding thanks to the legislation, which led to some good-natured ribbing between the two former Republican presidential candidates and Trump, who beat them.

When Cruz said that the bill “means a great deal to Texas,” Rubio followed up with a quip that he was “happy to see that Florida is going to do more than Texas is in NASA,” before he was drowned out by laughter.

“It’ll be a good competition,” Trump responded.

Trump also joked with the two men when discussing the difficulties that astronauts face. “It’s a pretty tough job. I don’t know, Ted, would you like to do it?” Trump asked Cruz, who shook his head. “Marco, would you want to do it?” he asked Rubio. “I’m not sure we want to do it.”

“You could send Congress to space,” Cruz replied, to much laughter.

“What a great idea!” Trump said. He neither mentioned nor looked at Nelson, who has been to space, during the exchange.

Rep. John Culberson (R-Texas) was effusive in his praise of the president’s leadership on NASA funding, saying Trump would be remembered as “the father of the interplanetary highway system” the way President Dwight D. Eisenhower is remembered as the father of the interstate highway system.

“Well, that sounds exciting,” Trump replied. “First we want to fix our highways! We’re going to fix our highways.”

Nelson remained on the sidelines of the joking, until Vice President Mike Pence asked the former astronaut to say a few words, to which Trump quipped: “Oh, he’s a Democrat. I wasn’t going to let him speak.”

Florida’s senior senator praised the bill for putting NASA on a “dual track” with commercial craft providing transport to the ISS and “NASA going out and exploring the heavens, and we’re going to Mars.”

Trump also spoke highly of NASA’s public-private partnership, which he said will benefit the economy through jobs and increased scientific research.

“It’s amazing what’s going on. So many people and so many companies are so into exactly what NASA stands for, so the commercial and the private sector will get to use these facilities, and I hope they’re going to be paying us a lot of money,” the president said. “But they’re going to make great progress.”

Pence announced that Trump would “in very short order” relaunch the National Space Council, which the vice president will chair. “We’re going to be bringing together the best and  the brightest in NASA and also in the private sector. We have elected a builder for president, and as he said, America once again needs to start building and leading to the stars,” Pence said.

Yet the advances made through the current appropriations could be hampered by a cut in funding contained in Trump’s budget blueprint that was released last Thursday. Four Earth science missions that in part study the climate would be axed if the budget is passed, according to Space.com. It would also eliminate NASA’s Education Office, as well as science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) scholarships and education programs that NASA typically funds that are used to train the next generation of astronauts and engineers, Fast Company reported.

After the signing, NASA Astronaut Office Chief Chris Cassidy presented Trump with a NASA flight jacket. Trump gave the pen he used to sign the bill to Cruz, while he gave souvenir pens to Rubio, Nelson and others. As he lifted the signed legislation to show to the cameras, Trump joked about the size of the law.

“It’s a lot of pages in there. We don’t want to let that slip!” he said.

S. 442 is the first NASA appropriations law in seven years.