WASHINGTON, D.C. – The nation’s space agency is set to get a significant boost in funding next year thanks to the massive spending bill congressional leaders unveiled last night, according to U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL).
Nelson, the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee which oversees NASA, is a long-time proponent of the nation’s space program and one of the leading architects of NASA’s plan to build a new monster rocket and crew capsule for deep space exploration. The $1.1 trillion budget includes roughly $4 billion for space exploration which Nelson says is enough to keep the new space launch system on track for its first crewed mission set to launch as early as 2021.
"We are going back into space with Americans on American rockets, and we are going to Mars,” Nelson said on the Senate floor Wednesday.
Overall, the space agency would get $19.3 billion, a significantly higher amount than the roughly $18 billion NASA received last year. Included in this year’s total is $3.27 billion for the agency to continue work on its new space launch system and Orion crew capsule, nearly $400 million more than these programs received last year.
The bill also includes $1.24 billion for the continued development of NASA’s commercial crew program which will enable the agency to once again launch American astronauts on American-made rockets, instead of relying on the Russians for rides to the space station.
Following is a rough transcript of Nelson’s remarks on the Senate floor this afternoon:
Sen. Nelson: Mr. President, we are going back into space with Americans on American rockets and we are going to Mars. We are on the cusp of the next big breakthrough in space exploration.
It’s interesting that this is at the very time that in our culture here on earth, the movie that's hearkening back, "Star Wars," is coming out again and it's to be such a blockbuster at the box office.
Well, what is fictional in "Star Trek" and "Star Wars" is now becoming factual. And in large part is what has been done in the nation's space program since the shutdown of the space shuttle back in 2011 and in the preparation, the new vehicles, the new rockets, the new spacecraft, the new satellites, the new exploratory missions that have gone on.
Who among us merely three decades ago would think that the Hubble space telescope would look back into the far reaches of the universe close to the beginning, of the beginning of that universe, and start to unlock secrets through this telescope that is orbiting the earth that was put up by humans in the U.S. space shuttle.
Who among us would believe that we now are going to launch a telescope in 2018 that will look back in time to the very beginning of the source of light in the universe – the Big Bang – and understand this universe all the more and how it evolved in this magnificent creation that we earthlings observe of the heavens.
And who, among us, were not impatient over four decades ago when we landed on the moon that were impatient to go on and escape the bounds of earth's gravity once again to get out and explore the heavens.
Well, that is now becoming a reality. And it's becoming a reality in large part because of the budget that will be presented to congress which we will pass an appropriation that just in this present fiscal year that we find ourselves right now will increase NASA’s budget $1.3 billion over what NASA was appropriated last year.
For the first part, of getting Americans on American rockets back into space since we haven’t had Americans on American rockets since we shut down the space shuttle. That had to be done. That was an especially extraordinary creative flying machine.
But its design had inherent flaws that were risky for human beings and, indeed, over 135 flights of the space shuttle we lost two crews, 14 souls because of its design when there was a malfunction that there was no escape for the crew.
But now we have new rockets that will have the crew in a capsule on the top of the rocket so that if there is an explosion on the pad, an explosion in ascent all the way to orbit, you can still save the crew because you can separate them by the escape rockets from the main vehicle and save the crew, ultimately having them land or by parachute – powered landing or a parachute landing – and save the crew. And these rockets are almost ready to fly.
Indeed, some of them have been flying for quite a while. Two companies – SpaceX and Boeing – will have the spacecraft. SpaceX, its capsule, its spacecraft called Dragon, sitting on top of a rocket that has flown many times called the Falcon 9. Boeing, in a spacecraft called the Starliner that will sit upon the very proven Atlas V rocket.
Which one will fly first we do not know but the fact is that’s only two years away, 2017. They will fly with the first crews to and from the space station so that we no longer have to rely upon a very reliable partner that, indeed, helped us build the International Space Station to which we go and return not only with crew but cargo as well. We won’t have to rely on the Soyuz any more. We’ll be flying on American rockets, and that’s going to happen in a short two years.
And the assurance of that is this: it’s the omnibus appropriations that’s coming forth that has appropriated the amount needed that NASA needs to go on and keep this competition between SpaceX and Boeing going for developing, hopefully, two spacecraft that will be launching Americans on American rockets to and from our International Space Station.
By the way, the space station – we have six human beings up there. It’s an international crew. They’re doing all kinds of experiments, and at another time and another date, I can tell you about some those exciting things. We are going to Mars.
We’re going to Mars because we’re developing a spacecraft called Orion that we have already test-flown out to 3,600 miles to check its structural integrity on a ballistic reentry. That was done a year ago. And now we’re building the largest, most powerful rocket ever on Earth called “The Space Launch System,” the SLS. Orion and SLS have also been given a boost in this appropriations bill. And, so, we are well on our way for the first test for this full-up rocket with capsule in September of 2018. That’s less than three years away. With the first crew vehicle after the first test in 2021. That is the forerunner to building the spacecraft and the technologies that can take human beings and keep them alive all the way from Earth to Mars, land on Mars, stay on Mars for a while, and return safely to the Earth.
Star Wars, Star Trek – that’s fiction. It’s exciting. It’s fiction. This is space fact. It’s happening in front of our eyes.
Now, there are other things that are happening with this appropriations bill. We think in this solar system if there is a chance for life besides Mars or life that was there and we want to know what happened, there’s a moon around Jupiter caller Europa.
Europa is so cold that it has an exterior that is ice. But the gravitational pull of Jupiter as Europa goes around and around Jupiter is such that it causes the friction from an inner core that already has heat and heats up from the inside.
So under this crust on Europa of ice is water. In our experience as earthlings, wherever we have found water, we have found life.
And so: is not Europa one of the best chances of there being life as we understand it in those oceans, a smaller body than Earth, Europa, and yet oceans that are twice the volume of oceans on planet Earth.? That’s a real possibility.
And so in this appropriations bill there is $1.6 billion to proceed on a plan for taking us to Europa to see if there is other life in our solar system.
And, Mr. President, there’s also something that’s very important to us earthlings and that is that we need to know what’s happening to the planet and we need to be able to predict and we need to be able to foretell.
Because if a big storm’s coming here, we want precise measurements to let us bound on the face of Terra Firma to what is that storm that’s coming and what are the weather conditions.
That accuracy is so important for us in our daily lives here on Earth. No even to speak of our national security.
You could go through the rest of the NASA budget and you could see that it, indeed, sets us on a course for extraordinary exploration as well as taking care of the aeronautical research, which is the other “A” in NASA – aeronautics – and that has plus-up from the president’s request. Aeronautics giving all of the research on the technologies to make sure that our aviation industry is at the absolute cutting edge.
Mr. President, we are going to Mars. And we are beginning this journey as we did with the test of the spacecraft a year ago. But that journey is going to accelerate and in the lifetimes of many of those within the sound of my voice, they will witness a human crew, Americans possibly an international crew that will go all the way to the planet Mars and return.
Indeed, what was science fiction based on science fact, the Matt Damon movie “The Martian” really is right within our grasp.
It’s an exciting time as we bring our space exploration back to life so that the American people can see that there is a vibrant space program and that we have a goal and that goal is the planet Mars.