Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said at a May 14 hearing of his space subcommittee that the proposed Space Force could play a role protecting commercial activities in space. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

WASHINGTON — The Senate Commerce Committee approved Nov. 13 a NASA authorization bill introduced a week earlier to extend the life of the International Space Station and support other agency programs.

The committee approved, on a voice vote, the NASA Authorization Act of 2019. That bill, S.2800, was introduced Nov. 6 by a bipartisan group of senators led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), chairman of the committee’s space subcommittee.

The committee approved, without debate, an amended version of the bill and nearly 20 separate amendments from senators. Those changes include language updating NASA’s Space Grant program, studies of a space resources institute and a space weather center of excellence, and a requirement that NASA prioritize the use low-enriched uranium for any space nuclear power systems to address nuclear nonproliferation concerns.

The modified version of the bill keeps intact its major provisions, in particular language that authorizes an extension of the International Space Station from 2024 to 2030. “The ISS has been a remarkable success for the United States,” Cruz said in remarks at the committee session. “Continuing the operation of the ISS through 2030 will help grow our already burgeoning space economy.”

Other sections of the bill endorse a “stepping-stone” approach to human exploration, going to the moon as an intermediate step towards the long-term goal of sending humans to Mars. “With its passage, we will keep the International Space Station operating through 2030 and authorize important steps of lunar surface missions that keep NASA on the path to Mars,” said Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), ranking member of the full committee and a co-sponsor of the bill.

While the bill does not explicitly call for a human return to the moon by 2024, as called for in March by the White House, members of the committee said the bill is designed to support just that.

“The next human being that steps foot on the moon will be an American, and will be an American woman,” said Sen. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.), chairman of the full committee and a co-sponsor of the authorization act. “I hope we’ll all resolve to follow the leadership of NASA and make provisions that that take place by 2024.”

The bill now goes to the full Senate. Cruz, in his remarks, urged his colleagues in the House to take action on the bill as well. “I look forward to continuing to work with my colleagues here in the committee and in the rest of the Senate, and to hopefully getting the House engaged on this important effort as well so that we can pass the NASA Authorization Act of 2019 and send it to the president’s desk for signature.”

The House has yet to introduce its version of a NASA authorization act. In remarks at a Nov. 13 hearing of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas), chair of the full committee, said the committee “will be reauthorizing NASA this Congress” but was not more specific about a timeframe for a new authorization bill. The current Congress runs through the end of 2020.

The NASA authorization bill was one of 20 that the Senate Commerce Committee approved during its markup session. Another bill, approved without amendment or debate, would rename NASA’s Plum Brook Station in Ohio the Neil A. Armstrong Test Facility. A companion bill is pending consideration in the House.

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...