Evan Vucci/AP
Sen. Ted Cruz, (R) of Texas, accompanied by (from l.) House majority leader Kevin McCarthy of Calif., Sen. Marco Rubio, (R) of Florida, and Sen. Bill Nelson, (D) of Florida, speaks in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, Tuesday, March 21, 2017, during a bill signing by the president to increase NASA's budget to $19.5 billion and directs the agency to focus human exploration of deep space and Mars.

With budget boost, Trump shifts NASA's gaze from Earth to Mars

For the most part, NASA has avoided the deep cuts that the Trump administration has proposed for other research agencies. This authorization bill continues that trend, but doesn’t yet have scientists breathing a sigh of relief.

On Tuesday, President Trump signed the National Aeronautics and Space Administration Transition Authorization Act of 2017. The legislation authorizes $19.5 billion worth of spending in the 2018 budget year, and keeps several of NASA’s high-profile exploration programs on track.

Signing the law earned Trump a blue NASA jacket and approval from a bipartisan group of lawmakers and astronauts. Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat and former Space Shuttle astronaut, voiced optimism about the legislation. "We have the commercial companies going to and from the International Space Station and we have NASA going out and exploring the heavens," he said during the Oval Office signing ceremony. "And we're going to Mars."

For the most part, NASA has avoided the deep cuts that the Trump administration has proposed for other research agencies. This authorization bill continues that trend, but doesn’t yet have scientists breathing a sigh of relief.

Space policy expert Scott Pace, speaking to The Washington Post, described the bill as a “vote for stability.” Among other measures, it maintains NASA’s long-term goal of sending humans to Mars by the mid-2030's, and continues to fund development of the Space Launch System and Orion crew capsule that will get them there. It also calls for continued support of robotic missions already underway, like a Europa probe and the James Webb Space Telescope.

The $19.5 billion authorization bill marks a slight increase over the $19.1 billion requested in Trump’s 2018 budget, described by the agency’s acting administrator, Robert Lightfoot, as “a positive budget overall for NASA.”

In the same statement, however, Mr. Lightfoot also alluded to a change in focus with the new administration. “We remain committed to studying our home planet and the universe, but are reshaping our focus within the resources available to us.”

Since November, Trump administration officials and allies have questioned the study of our “home planet” – in particular, its changing climate. Last week, The Christian Science Monitor’s Henry Gass wrote that Trump’s proposed budget “would terminate four satellite missions, studying carbon dioxide, geomagnetic storms, oceans and aerosols, and the feedback between radiation and climate.”

As Business Insider’s Dave Mosher pointed out Tuesday, “The new law doesn't even mention earth science, which troubles scientists.” The proposed cuts to NASA’s Earth-monitoring satellites – along with similar reductions at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and elsewhere – has cast doubt over the future of America’s environmental research.

But this bill doesn’t spell doom for the researchers who study our planet – nor is it a final seal of approval for the scientists who study other ones. On its own, an authorization bill doesn’t send funds to a federal agency. That can only be done by an appropriations bill.

Which means that the research community still has its eyes on the budget-making process that lies ahead. And even the scientists who come out well in the new budget want to lend a hand to their shortchanged colleagues.

As Joel Parriott, a policy analyst for the American Astronomical Society, put it to The Washington Post last week, “We need to stand together in advocating for the critical role that all areas of science play in our nation’s economic prosperity and national security.”

This report contains material from the Associated Press.

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