Sen. Maria Cantwell plays a role in drive to keep the space station going until 2030

Alan Boyle
An artist’s conception shows a Boeing Starliner space taxi approaching the International Space Station. (Boeing Illustration)

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., has joined with three other U.S. senators in introducing a NASA authorization bill that aims to extend federal support for International Space Station to 2030.

The bill voices support for NASA’s Artemis campaign to explore the moon in preparation for missions to Mars. But it doesn’t mention NASA’s 2024 deadline for the astronauts’ first landing. Instead, the legislation urges NASA to “collaborate with commercial and international partners to establish lunar exploration by 2028” — which had been NASA’s plan until April.

It also backs NASA’s plans for a space-based infrared survey telescope designed to scan the skies for potentially hazardous near-Earth objects, and sets a 2025 launch deadline for that project.

Cantwell is a co-sponsor of the bipartisan bill in part because she’s the ranking Democratic member of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, which plays a lead role in NASA-related matters.

The other co-sponsors are Roger Wicker, R-Miss., the Commerce Committee’s chair; Ted Cruz, R-Texas, who chairs the Senate aviation and space subcommittee; and Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., that subcommittee’s ranking Democratic member.

The upshot of the bill is that the senators are in favor of what NASA is aiming to do, but not necessarily on the same timetable.

NASA is aiming to hand over the U.S. role for managing space station operations to commercial ventures by 2024. So far there’s been no commitment to continue funding the station after that time, but the newly introduced bill would extend the 21-year-old outpost’s life to Sept. 30, 2030. It would also extend a waiver allowing NASA to purchase goods and services for the space station from Russia.

When it comes to space exploration, the bill endorses the broad strokes of the Artemis program to land “the first woman and the next man on the moon,” and it calls on NASA to “ensure that the entire Artemis program is inclusive and representative of all people of the United States, including women and minorities.”

Diversity and education came in for prominent mentions in the legislation, as well as in a statement released by Cantwell. Without naming names, she also gave a shout-out to the roles played by Boeing, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin company and other aerospace ventures with Washington state roots:

“Washington state has been a leader in the space program for over 50 years, and with this legislation our state is poised to be a key part of NASA’s return to the moon. This time, women will be included at every level of the lunar exploration program — something that is long overdue. This bill also expands NASA’s important role in inspiring and educating the next generation of the nation’s STEM workforce so that America has the people necessary to keep pushing the boundaries of innovation.”

Authorization bills address the big picture for federal programs in the years ahead, but the item-by-item appropriation of funds is done with different legislation.

Congress is still considering NASA’s request for more money to support the speed-up of the Artemis moon program. Last month, the White House’s acting budget chief, Russell Vought, addressed the budgetary debate in a letter sent to Senate Appropriations Committee Chairman Richard Shelby, R-Ala.

Vought said the Senate’s version of the appropriations bill should set aside an additional $700 million for exploration research and development to support the goal of putting astronauts on the moon by 2024.

In its present state, the funding level would be “insufficient to fully fund the lander system that astronauts would use,” Vought wrote.

Boeing and a team led Blue Origin have both submitted proposals for lunar landing systems, and SpaceX is thought to have proposed its Starship super-rocket as well. At least two proposals, and perhaps three, are to be selected for further development by January.

This week’s authorization bill actually addresses the lander issue, saying that NASA should “foster the development of not more than two human-class lunar lander designs through public-private partnerships.”

Update: The Senate Commerce Committee approved the authorization bill on a voice vote on Nov. 13, sending it on to the full Senate for consideration. The House hasn’t yet introduced its version of the bill.

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