Why you should take a closer look at this week’s NASA bill

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U.S. President Donald Trump receives a NASA jacket during a signing ceremony for S442, the NASA transition authorization act, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., March 21, 2017. Photo by Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS

U.S. President Donald Trump receives a NASA jacket during a signing ceremony for S442, the NASA transition authorization act, in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, U.S., March 21, 2017. Photo by Kevin Lamarque/REUTERS

President Donald Trump has signed the 2017 NASA Authorization Act, the first complete authorization for the agency since 2010. The bill lays out NASA’s directives along with a proposed budget for the 2018 fiscal year at $19.5 billion — a $0.2 billion raise from the previous year. It must still run through a congressional appropriations process to set the final funding for NASA.

The authorization act passed in the Senate with unanimous support and by voice vote in the House.

While the bill reaffirms NASA’s commitments to the International Space Station (through 2024) and to future manned missions into deep space, certain elements — or the lack thereof — have caused concern among some scientists, including space baron Elon Musk.

Here are some of the bill’s biggest changes.

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So long, Earth science

Rewind to 1958: The act that formally created America’s space agency had a set of objectives. The first goal listed: “The expansion of human knowledge of phenomena in the atmosphere and space.”

Congress has maintained this objective for NASA, under Republican and Democratic administrations alike, until Trump signed this most recent bill Tuesday.

What changed:

  • The new authorization bill removes all mention of earth sciences, a section that was included in the NASA authorization bill signed in 2010.
  • It also removed sections on NASA’s collaboration with National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration on the investigation of the Earth’s atmosphere.
The 2015 Antarctic ozone hole area was larger than the continent of North America, based on research by NASA and NOAA. Photo by NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

The 2015 Antarctic ozone hole area was larger than the continent of North America, based on research by NASA and NOAA. Photo by NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center

Why it happened:

  • The new bill was authored by Senator Ted Cruz (R-Texas), who has said in the past that he “is concerned in the current environment, that NASA has lost its focus” by focusing on climate change.
  • During a debate over the new bill, Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), who chairs the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, said the bill ensures “NASA is not burdened with funding other agency missions.”

Why it matters:

  • “Those programs provide the space-based measurements to help scientists understand the Earth’s systems and changing climate to predict space weather events, which can have devastating impacts on our terrestrial infrastructure,” Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), said of the missing science and heliophysics programs .
  • Scientists have pointed out that the items in question also include a lot of practical programs, “such as safeguards to avoid eating toxic shellfish, reduce aviation disruptions and tracking unhealthy air quality,” said Brenda Ekwurzel, senior climate scientist at the Union of Concerned Scientists.
  • The fate of those programs won’t be clear until the bill goes through the budget appropriations process. The authorization act passed in the Senate with unanimous support and by voice vote in the House.

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Who’s on the hook if a commercial spaceship goes kaboom?

Meanwhile, the commercialization of space travel has strolled into its heyday.

In the 2017 authorization, Congress restates its dedication to NASA’s Commercial Crew Program, a six-year-old initiative that provides government funds to private sector companies — like Blue Origin, SpaceX or Boeing — to develop space transportation vehicles.

What changed:

  • The bill requires NASA to prioritize the use of its own launch vehicles or commercial providers over those of foreign entities like Russia. Russian space vehicles had transported a number of American astronauts, including Scott Kelly, to the ISS in recent years.
  • The 2017 authorization act also calls on NASA to facilitate the “commercialization and economic development” of low-earth orbit activities, such as lowering the costs of commercial satellite operations and exploring the possibility of transferring the International Space Station into the private sector.
  • The power to invoke indemnity clauses — which place risk, or financial liability for an accident, on the government instead of private suppliers — moves from Congress to the executive branch, in this case, the NASA administrator.

Shortly after the signing, Vice President Mike Pence announced plans to reinstate the National Space Council. The space policy committee , which ran from 1958 to 1973 and again under President George H.W. Bush in the early 1990s, has a long legacy of executive control over NASA.

“We’re going to be bringing together the best and the brightest in NASA and also in the private sector,” said Pence, who will lead the NSC. “We have elected a builder president and, as he said, America once again has to start building and leading to the stars.”

A still image taken from video of smoke rising on the launch site of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in Cape Canaveral, Florida, September 1, 2016.  Photo by NASA TV/Handout via REUTERS

A still image taken from video of smoke rising on the launch site of SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket in Cape Canaveral, Florida, September 1, 2016. Photo by NASA TV/Handout via REUTERS

Why it happened:

  • “This bill will make sure that NASA’s most important and effective programs are sustained,” Trump said after Tuesday’s signing. “It orders NASA to continue transitioning activities to the commercial sector where we have seen great progress. 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.”

Why it matters:

  • The indemnity clause provisions actually aren’t new. “We have had commercial space transportation law going back to 1984 that codifies a risk-sharing agreement between the government and the private sector,” said Joanne Gabrynowicz, editor-in-chief emerita of the Journal of Space Law. “It would be triggered in the event of a catastrophic loss — and happily, that provision of the law hasn’t been needed yet.” But the shift gives more power to the executive branch rather than Congress.
  • The bill calls on private companies to buy insurance coverage of $500 million for any launch or reentry mission. This kind of mandate has appeared in similar legislation before, but the 2017 version re-ups the terms. By comparison, the Mars Curiosity Rover mission cost $2.6 billion. (Reminder: NASA’s current budget is $19.3 billion, approximately 0.5 percent of the total federal budget).
  • Despite the commercial commitments to near-Earth travel, SpaceX CEO Elon Musk said he wasn’t happy with new act’s prospects for deep space. “This bill changes almost nothing about what NASA is doing,” Musk stated via Twitter. “Existing programs stay in place and there is no added funding for Mars.”

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Deep space and cyberspace

Two additional tidbits in the act address NASA prospects in deep space and cyberspace.

TREAT Astronauts Act aims to provide medical services to U.S. astronauts like Scott Kelly that spend extensive periods of time in space. Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev/REUTERS

TREAT Astronauts Act aims to provide medical services to U.S. astronauts like Scott Kelly that spend extensive periods of time in space. Photo by Kirill Kudryavtsev/REUTERS

What’s changed:

  • The bill creates the TREAT Astronauts Act, which addresses the need for medical coverage for U.S. astronauts that spend extensive time in space flight, such as on future missions to the moon, Mars or elsewhere in the Solar System.
  • Unless new technology is developed, these trips will feature extensive exposure to microgravity and cosmic radiation with unknown ramifications. The TREAT Act would provide medical monitoring for astronauts years after they return and retire, namely for those who may not have access to military insurance plans.
  • The bill also requires NASA to establish agency-wide information security and to establish accountability, governance and implementation oversight to meet standard cybersecurity best practices.

Why it matters:

U.S. Navy divers practice for recovery of the Orion deep space capsule. Orion is one of the projects backed by the 2017 NASA Authorization Act. Orion is scheduled to launch on NASA's Space Launch System in late 2018. Photo by NASA

U.S. Navy divers practice for recovery of the Orion deep space capsule. Orion is one of the projects backed by the 2017 NASA Authorization Act. Orion is scheduled to launch on NASA’s Space Launch System in late 2018. Photo by NASA

  • Scientists have observed bone loss and eye injuries among long-term residents of space stations.
  • But Gabrynowicz pointed out the bill only states the government “may provide” this medical coverage — but “it does not have to be provided,” she said. “In other words, it is allowed but not obligatory.”
  • Meanwhile, NASA computers, like any connected to a modem, are vulnerable to attacks, as demonstrated last year, when hackers caused breached a drone operated by the space agency. The hack was minor relative to other recent government hacks, but still exposed the names, phone numbers and emails of more than 2,400 employees.
  • The bill forces the agency to “modernize its cybersecurity defenses into a layered, security-by-design approach,” said James Scott, co-founder and senior fellow at the Institute for Critical Infrastructure Technology (ICIT) in Washington D.C. “These low-level attackers typically exploit trivial vulnerabilities, such as FTP access to servers, that should have been mitigated.”
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