Cornyn, Culberson Restart Debate on Future of NASA’s Human Spaceflight Efforts

by Bill Ostrove, Space Systems Analyst, Forecast International.

Falcon 9 Launch. Source – SpaceX

U.S. Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) and U.S. Representative John Culberson (TX-07) have introduced a bill in Congress to require NASA to develop plans for the future of U.S. human space exploration, with the goal of landing an astronaut on Mars. The plan is called the Mapping a New and Innovative Focus on our Exploration Strategy (MANIFEST) for Human Spaceflight Act. According to a statement released by Senator Cornyn’s office, the plan is based on recommendations of a 2014 National Academies report.

The point of the MANIFEST for Human Spaceflight Act is to require NASA to develop a strategic plan that will focus existing resources toward a long-term goal of landing humans on Mars. Specifically, the bill – if passed – will require NASA to regularly update Congress on a human exploration strategy that outlines goals and destinations for future crewed space missions, work with the National Academy of Sciences to develop that plan, update the plan every five years, and amend NASA’s guiding exploration goals to specifically indicate a human presence on Mars as a long-term goal.

With this announcement, Congress is attempting to influence the new presidential administration regarding NASA’s future mission. Throughout President Barack Obama’s administration, Congress and NASA battled over the future of human spaceflight. NASA has promoted greater involvement by commercial companies in transporting astronauts into space. Congress has favored NASA-controlled systems, like the Orion and the Space Launch System (SLS).

For years, the space agency has operated under a compromise agreement through which it funds commercial and government efforts. Even if the bill proposed by Senator Cornyn and Representative Culberson is passed, NASA may still have the freedom to interpret it to mean that its ultimate goal is to fund commercial exploration of deep space destinations.

Ultimately the decision will rest on NASA leadership. At this point, it is not clear what direction President Donald Trump’s administration will take. Members of the NASA transition team fall on both sides of the issue. However, it is not clear how the transition team will ultimately affect NASA’s leadership.

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Forecast International offers two Space Systems Forecast products: Launch Vehicles & Manned Platforms, with reports on manned spacecraft, expendable launch vehicles and more, and Satellites & Spacecraft, with coverage ranging from microsatellites to large COMSATs – all complete with technical specifications and forecast details.  

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