International Space Station. Credit: NASA

WASHINGTON — A bipartisan group of senators introduced a new NASA authorization bill Nov. 6 that would extend the life of the International Space Station and direct NASA to have an upgraded version of the Space Launch System ready by 2024.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), chair of the Senate Commerce Committee’s space subcommittee, introduced the NASA Authorization Act of 2019 Nov. 6. Consponsoring the bill are the subcommittee’s ranking member, Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) along with the chair and ranking member of the full committee, Sens. Roger Wicker (R-Miss.) and Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.)

“As chairman of the aviation and space subcommittee, I’m proud to lead bipartisan legislation that continues our nation’s bold vision for science and space exploration,” Cruz said in a statement about the bill.

The legislation formally authorizes NASA to spend $22.75 billion in fiscal year 2020, the same amount included in an appropriations bill passed by the Senate Oct. 31. More important, though, are the policy provisions included in the bill addressing various facets of the agency.

The bill features language formally authorizing an extension of ISS operations through 2030. Similar language was included in last year’s Space Frontier Act, which passed the Senate by unanimous consent in December but failed to win passage in the House.

“By extending the ISS through 2030, this legislation will help grow our already burgeoning space economy, fortifying the United States’ leadership in space, increasing American competitiveness around the world and creating more jobs and opportunity here at home,” Cruz said.

While extending the ISS, the bill also promotes commercialization of low Earth orbit. “The Administrator shall establish a low-Earth orbit commercialization program to encourage the fullest commercial use and development of space by private entities in the United States,” the legislation states, including both stimulating demand for LEO capabilities and commercial facilities on the ISS and independent of it. The bill calls on NASA to “maintain a national microgravity laboratory in space” after the decommissioning of the ISS.

A related provision for the ISS is language extending NASA’s waiver from the Iran, North Korea and Syria Nonproliferation Act so that the agency can continue to work with Russia on the ISS, including the potential purchase of additional Soyuz seats. The bill extends that waiver, currently set to expire at the end of 2020, to the end of 2030.

In exploration, the bill largely follows NASA’s plans for developing a lunar Gateway and returning humans to the moon. However, it directs NASA to develop the Exploration Upper Stage (EUS) for the SLS, a configuration known as Block 1B, in time for the third launch of the SLS. NASA, in an announcement last month about a proposed contract with Boeing for long-term production of the SLS, said that the EUS would be used starting with the fourth SLS mission in 2025.

In science, the act would direct NASA to continue to develop the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Telescope (WFIRST), which the administration sought to cancel in NASA’s fiscal year 2020 budget request because of overruns on the James Webb Space Telescope. The bill sets a cost cap of $3.2 billion for the mission.

The bill also directs NASA to pursue a space-based infrared telescope, to be launched by September 2025, to search for near Earth asteroids. NASA announced in September its intent to develop such a spacecraft, based on the previously proposed NEOCam mission, as a directed project rather than as a competed mission.

The act requires NASA to develop a plan by the end of 2021 on how it will perform a flight demonstration of nuclear thermal propulsion technology by 2024. Language in separate appropriations bills has provided funding for such work and also set a 2024 deadline for a flight demonstration, but gave few details on how that technology, which could significantly decrease travel times for Mars missions, would be tested.

Senators, who held a hearing Nov. 5 on NASA’s role in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education, direct NASA to maintain an Office of STEM Engagement (formerly Office of Education) and various programs run by that office, such as the National Space Grant College and Fellowship program. NASA has sought, in its fiscal year 2020 budget request as well as those for the prior two years, to close the office.

“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,” Cantwell said in a statement about the bill.

Cruz said in the statement that he hopes that the bill can pass the Senate later this year. The House has been working on its own version of a NASA authorization bill but has yet to introduce it.

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...