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Flanked by astronauts Chris Cassidy and Tracy Caldwell Dyson, President Donald Trump shows off a flight jacket he was given after signing a NASA authorization bill into law. (NASA Photo / Bill Ingalls)

President Donald Trump today signed legislation laying out the broad agenda for NASA’s journey to Mars – but not to a near-Earth asteroid – and signaled that Vice President Mike Pence would revive a panel to oversee U.S. policy beyond Earth.

“In very short order, the president will be taking action to relaunch the National Space Council, and he’s asked me to chair that, as vice presidents have in the past,” Pence said during the Oval Office signing ceremony. “And we’re going to be bringing together the best and the brightest in NASA and also in the private sector.”

As Pence was speaking, Trump nodded his head and said, “Right.”

The council hasn’t been in action since 1993, when Bill Clinton replaced George H.W. Bush in the White House. Vice President Dan Quayle was the last person to chair the National Space Council. The council’s revival is expected to be addressed in an executive order that Trump will issue in the days to come.

The legislation that Trump signed today authorizes NASA’s activities and sets general funding levels in categories that add up to a total of $19.508 billion for fiscal 2017.

It will take a separate bill to specify appropriations for the next fiscal year, beginning in October. In a budget blueprint released last week, the White House proposed spending $19.1 billion in fiscal 2018. It’s up to Congress to formulate a detailed spending plan, but the newly signed bill, known as the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017, can provide guidance for NASA’s activities going forward.

The last time Congress was able to pass an authorization bill and get it signed into law was back in 2010.

 

“It’s been a long time since a bill like this has been signed, reaffirming our national commitment to the core mission of NASA: human space exploration, space science and technology,” Trump said. “With this legislation, we support NASA’s scientists, engineers, astronauts and their pursuit of discovery.

“We support jobs,” the president added. “It’s about jobs, also.”

During the signing ceremony, Trump traded comments with the lawmakers and VIPs surrounding him in the Oval Office – including astronauts Tracy Caldwell Dyson and Chris Cassidy, who presented the president with a NASA flight jacket.

When U.S. Rep. John Culberson, R-Texas, told Trump that future generations could see him as “the father of the interplanetary highway system,” the president turned the focus to more down-to-earth concerns.

“Well, that sounds exciting,” Trump said. “First, we want to fix our highways.”

That echoed a comment that Trump made during the presidential primary campaign, when he said that NASA was great but added that “we have bigger problems … we’ve got to fix our potholes.

The newly signed legislation confirms that the space program’s long-term goal is to establish a permanent human presence beyond low Earth orbit, and to send astronauts to explore Mars and other deep-space destinations. It calls on NASA to look into mounting a human mission to the Red Planet by 2033.

The law voices support for NASA’s multibillion-dollar Space Launch System and Orion space capsule, both of which are still under development, as well as for the commercial space transport services being provided by ventures ranging from SpaceX and Orbital ATK to Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corp.

However, the legislation raises roadblocks for continued funding of NASA’s Asteroid Redirect Mission. That mission calls for sending astronauts to study a piece of a near-Earth asteroid in the mid-2020s, and has been seen as closely associated with the Obama administration.

A subsection of the law provides for extended medical monitoring and treatment for astronauts and former astronauts, to keep track of the long-term health effects of spaceflight.

“That started in a meeting with astronaut Scott Kelly, after he got back from nearly a year in space,” Rep. Brian Babin, R-Texas, chair of the House Space Subcommittee, told Trump. “I said, ‘What can we do for you in the House of Representatives?’ He said, ‘Take care of us, make sure we’re hanging onto this data so that future astronauts will be treated right.'”

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