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Trump signs NASA Authorization Bill

President Donald Trump has signed the NASA Transition Authorization Act of 2017, which sets a $19.5 billion budget for the agency for fiscal year 2017.

The bill — S.442 — is the first NASA authorization bill to reach a U.S. president’s desk since 2010. Trump signed the bill into law today (March 21) during a televised ceremony in the Oval Office. He was joined by NASA astronauts Tracy Caldwell Dyson and Chris Cassidy, who presented the commander in chief with a NASA flight jacket.

Following the signing, Vice President Mike Pence announced that the White House will re-establish a National Space Council. The first iteration of a presidential space council was formed in 1958 under Dwight D. Eisenhower, and was dissolved in 1973. A new council was formed in 1989 under President George H. W. Bush, only to be dissolved again in 1993. The council has served to advise the president on space issues, but its value has been debated by spaceflight policy experts. Pence will chair the council, and he said that its members will include representatives from both NASA and the private sector.

“With this legislation, we support NASA’s scientists, engineers, astronauts and their pursuit of discoveries,” Trump said during the signing event. “This bill will make sure that NASA’s most important and effective programs are sustained. It orders NASA to continue … transitioning activities to the commercial sector where we have seen great progress … It continues support for the Commercial Crew Program, which will carry American astronauts into space from American soil once again. It’s been a long time.”

(Currently, NASA astronauts travel to the International Space Station aboard the Russia Soyuz spacecraft, which launches from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.)

Also attending the signing were Sens. Marco Rubio and Bill Nelson, both of Florida, home to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center; Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, home to NASA headquarters at the Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston; and Rep. Lamar Smith, also of Texas, chairman of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology.

The legislation accomplishes a long-discussed goal of providing lifetime health care coverage for retired astronauts. That coverage will also help NASA monitor the long-term effects of spaceflight on humans.

NASA’s new heavy-lift rocket, called the Space Launch System (SLS), and the Orion human spaceflight capsule both received sustained support in the new legislation. Orion could be used to carry astronauts to the moon or to help ferry them to deep-space destinations, and the new law also calls on the agency to investigate whether the spacecraft could be used to ferry humans to the International Space Station.

Under the new law, NASA will continue its efforts to eventually send humans to Mars, and the legislation “amends current law by adding human exploration of Mars as one of the goals and objectives of NASA and directs NASA to manage human space flight programs to enable humans to explore Mars and other destinations,” according to a statement from Cruz.