Congress is considering funding a giant rocket capable of sending U.S. astronauts to the moon or even Mars, which could further President Donald Trump’s agenda.
Congress could re-authorize funding for the Space Launch System (SLS) — a 212-foot heavy-lift rocket, and possibly the most powerful rocket booster ever built. NASA’s proposed missions to return a human to the moon or send astronauts to Mars are almost entirely reliant on the SLS and its Orion capsule.
“The draft NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017 maintains continuity of purpose across a broad array of NASA programs and initiatives,” Texas Republican Rep. Brian Babin, chairman of the House Subcommittee on Space, told The Daily Caller News Foundation. “It continues support for a robust and well-planned human exploration program that includes not only the Space Launch System and Orion programs but also commercial crew and cargo programs, among others.”
New legislation “supports a balanced portfolio in space science, planetary science, astrophysics, astronomy, and astrobiology, including the James Webb Space Telescope, the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope, the Mars 2020 rover, and a potential mission to Jupiter’s moon Europa,” Babin said.
Trump has expressed interest in space missions that would require the SLS and Orion. The president vowed to “unlock the mysteries of space” in his inaugural address, lending credence to reports he discussed sending humans to Mars in a private meeting with billionaire Elon Musk.
Trump could slash the more than $2 billion NASA spends on its Earth Science Mission Directorate, which covers global warming science, and divert that money towards space exploration.
Former President Barack Obama tried for years to eliminate the SLS and Orion programs, but Congress rescued the rocket. Obama took money from space exploration programs to fund Earth science programs.
The first manned SLS/Orion mission isn’t scheduled until 2021. Congress could potentially speed up this timeline to orbit the moon by 2020. The rocket is currently scheduled to send U.S. astronauts to Mars in the 2030s.
Experts have long suspected Trump’s space agenda will fund exploration with robotic probes and, later, sending humans to Mars with money diverted from NASA’s global warming science programs. Another billionaire space entrepreneur, Robert Bigelow, thinks Trump could double NASA’s budget.
The U.S. is better prepared to visit Mars than it was to visit the moon in the 1960s, according to a study by NASA’s Johnson Space Center. The total cost of current plans to send Americans to Mars comes out to roughly $35 billion spent by 2025 to arrive in 2030.
Additional money for Mars exploration could be diverted from NASA’s troubled Asteroid Redirect Mission, which was heavily supported by Obama.
“A number of prominent Republicans on Capitol Hill think that NASA should not be involved to the degree that it is in Earth science,” Jeff Foust, a senior writer at the trade publication SpaceNews, told Space.com. “I would certainly expect to see some sort of development in terms of potential reduction to NASA’s Earth science program.”
Obama repeatedly tried to slash space exploration funding and redirect it to Earth science programs, which include climate modeling initiatives designed to measure global warming. Obama increased NASA’s budget for environmental programs by 63 percent at the expense of its exploration budget.
Budget cuts have been blamed for China taking the lead in planning missions to Mars. China is rapidly catching up to the space programs of NASA and the U.S. military — Republicans and Democrats blame Obama for this.
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