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Senate panel OKs plan to send astronauts to Mars

$19.5 billion NASA budget would fund first year of mission development

Mars seen from Hubble telescope (NASA image)
Mars seen from Hubble telescope (NASA image)

WASHINGTON – A key Senate panel Wednesday unanimously approved a one-year spending plan for NASA that, for the first time, explicitly requires the space agency to send humans to Mars in the next quarter century.

The bill, sponsored by U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Florida), would give the space agency $19.5 billion for the fiscal year starting Oct. 1. It would, among other things, require NASA to establish a human settlement on Mars and continue the commercial space industry’s development of a new American-made rocket to once again send American astronauts to and from the International Space Station without having to rely on Russia.

“55 years after President Kennedy challenged the nation to put a man on the moon, the Senate is challenging NASA to put humans on Mars,” said Nelson, the top Democrat on the Senate Commerce Committee, which oversees NASA. “The priorities that we’ve laid out for NASA in this bill marks the beginning of a new era of American spaceflight.”

The last time Congress passed a long-term authorization bill for NASA was in 2010. That bill, co-authored by Nelson and former Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), is the current blueprint from which NASA has been operating. It set NASA on a course to build a new monster rocket to carry the Orion crew capsule into deep space and, eventually, Mars. It also laid the groundwork for the development of a commercial space industry.

The bill just approved by the committee also includes development of a heavy-lift rocket, an Orion crew vehicle for deep-space exploration, maximizing utilization of the International Space Station and improving cyber-security at NASA.

Nelson is hopeful that the bipartisan support this bill received will continue as the Senate begins work on a more comprehensive, multi-year blueprint for the agency next year.