Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said Dec. 10 that he's still working with Sen. Ted Crux (R-Texas) to pass legislation this year authorizing an extension of the ISS to 2030. Credit: U.S. Senate

WASHINGTON — With both the current Congress and his political career nearing their ends, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) said Dec. 10 he’s continuing to fight to extend operations of the International Space Station through the end of the next decade.

In a speech on the Senate floor that will be one of his last in the Senate, Nelson said he and Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), chairman of the Senate space subcommittee, were working to get an extension of the authorization of ISS operations passed before the end of this year.

“I remain confident that we will continue to operate the ISS well past the middle of the next decade,” he said. “As a matter of fact, Senator Cruz and I are still trying in this Congress to get the date for extension of the International Space Station extended to the end of the decade.”

Operations of the ISS are currently authorized through 2024, a date that the other ISS partners have also agreed to. In the agency’s 2019 budget proposal released in February, though, NASA proposed ending direct funding of the ISS in 2025 as part of its effort to commercialize low Earth orbit operations, freeing up resources to support its lunar exploration plans.

Nelson and Cruz strongly oppose any effort to end ISS operations in 2025, instead seeking to extend station operations through the 2020s. The station’s international partners would also have to back such an extension, something they said earlier this fall they were considering.

“It would be foolish to dispose of the orbital laboratory designated a national laboratory, which is our toehold on the space frontier, just as it is reaching the most productive period, and that’s what it’s doing in its research on orbit,” Nelson said.

Cruz introduced in July the Space Frontier Act, with Nelson as a co-sponsor, that among its commercial space regulatory provisions would also extend authorization of ISS operations through 2030. That bill was favorably reported by the Senate Commerce Committee in August, but is still pending action by the full Senate. A House bill, the Leading Human Spaceflight Act, would also extend the ISS authorization to 2030, but has not advanced since it was introduced by the House space subcommittee chairman, Rep. Brian Babin, Sept. 26.

There’s limited time remaining in this Congress for those bills to win approval, with the next Congress set to be sworn in Jan. 3. That limited time available will be devoted primarily to more critical legislation, such as appropriations bills. Much of the government, including NASA, is operating under a continuing resolution that expires Dec. 21.

Congress could start over next year and reintroduce those bills or similar measures, but Nelson will not be in the Senate to advocate for them. Nelson lost his bid for a fourth term in the Senate last month, losing to current Florida Gov. Rick Scott in a close race that required a recount.

Nelson’s speech, lasting a little more than 20 minutes, primarily reflected on the changes in space policy during his tenure in Congress. That included development of NASA plans for human exploration beyond Earth as well as a strengthened commercial space sector that has increased launch activity at Cape Canaveral.

He praised current and past leadership at NASA and industry, including current NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, whose nomination Nelson strongly opposed. “I’m also encouraged by NASA Administrator Bridenstine’s leadership in his early tenure at the helm of this agency and I wish him much success,” he said. “I applaud him for continuing to make good on his promises to keep NASA out of partisan politics and to heed the advice of the agency’s talented and experienced space professionals and the scientists.”

Nelson ended his remarks on an optimistic note, envisioning a future where humanity has expanded into the solar system. “The cosmos offers us limitless opportunities to expand, not just to survive but to thrive,” he said. “Imagine our so similar system inhabited by 100 billion dreamers, innovators and creators.”

“With that, I say resoundingly, onward and upward,” Nelson said, concluding his speech with a command made famous during space shuttle launches: “Go at throttle up.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...