The Senate Commerce Committee has cleared an authorization bill for NASA that would add one more space shuttle mission a year from now, speed up development of a heavy-lift rocket and slow down the move toward private-sector resupply of the International Space Station.
Amendments have reportedly been accepted to boost funding for robotic missions (from Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.) and suborbital research (from Tom Udall, D-N.M.). But an amendment from Mark Warner, D-Va., that would have kept space commercial funding on the track sought by President Barack Obama's original proposal was not incorporated into the bill.
The White House is on board with the changes to its space policy, according to Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla. Further revisions in NASA's spending plan could come in the months ahead as legislation moves through Congress' sausage-making machine. Check out this fleshed-out report from Space.com, with a little extra spice added in by yours truly. You can also revisit this preview that anticipated Thursday's committee action:
revised space vision - not necessarily to return to the moon, but to extend the space shuttle program, speed up the development of a heavy-lift rocket and slow down spending on space commercialization.The Senate Commerce Committee is due to vote Thursday on a measure that would shift the direction of NASA's
The prospect of reduced spending for private-sector spaceflight has sparked an 11th-hour campaign to get the legislation amended.
Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., said in a DemRadio sound bite that he expected his version of the bill to win the committee's approval, and that "the White House will announce their support for our bill" on Thursday. The Orlando Sentinel quoted an aide to President Barack Obama as saying the measure "appears to contain the critical elements necessary for achieving the president's vision for NASA."
Obama's original proposal fell flat in Congress, and Nelson has portrayed his compromise version of the reauthorization bill as the best way to safeguard thousands of aerospace jobs as the space shuttle program winds down.
The bill calls for NASA to add one more shuttle flight in mid-2011 to resupply the International Space Station, and start work on a heavy-lift launch vehicle and crew vehicle that could eventually send astronauts beyond Earth orbit. The White House's proposal said only that work on the heavy-lifter should begin by 2015.
Backers of commercial spaceflight are concerned about provisions that would spread out the $6 billion set aside for private-sector spacecraft over six years rather than five years, with most of that money being paid out in the latter years. During the first three years, $1.2 billion would be budgeted for commercial launches, rather than the $3.3 billion that Obama was asking for.
This has led groups such as the Space Frontier Foundation to urge support for an amendment offered by Sen. Mark Warner, D-Va., which would restore spending on commercial spaceflight to the levels sought by Obama - and would ease back on spending for NASA's in-house launch system. Another amendment, offered by Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., would explicitly authorize $15 million a year for a suborbital research program known as CRuSR. Yet another amendment from Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., would boost funding for robotic space missions that set the stage for human exploration.
Two dozen astronauts, including Apollo astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Rusty Schweickart. sent a letter to Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., strongly supporting space commercialization. "By allowing the private sector to take on the transportation of crew to low Earth orbit, NASA will finally be able to direct its resources and focus on human exploration beyond, and we strongly feel this direction for the agency is the right one," they wrote in the letter, which was posted on the SpaceRef website.
The letter served as something of a balancer to the opposition expressed by Apollo astronauts Neil Armstrong and Gene Cernan during their Senate committee testimony earlier this year.
Since Cernan and Armstrong sounded their warning about commercial space companies, one of the better-known entrepreneurial rocket companies, California-based SpaceX, notched a significant success with the first test flight of its Falcon 9 launch vehicle. SpaceX has served as a lightning rod for criticism of Obama's space commercialization policy, but the fact is that many of the same companies involved in the shuttle-station program are also aiming to get a piece of the commercial spaceflight pie.
In his sound bite, for example, Nelson said his bill would support the use of commercial rockets "such as the Boeing Co.'s Delta that can take astronauts to and from the International Space Station much cheaper than the much more expensive heavy-lift rockets." Boeing is the prime contractor for the space station and a partner in the United Space Alliance, which manages many aspects of the shuttle program on NASA's behalf.
Nelson said White House support will "enable us to keep moving the ball forward and being able to have NASA continue a vigorous path of human exploration of the cosmos." The only question is, will America's space effort move forward, beyond Earth orbit, or will it keep going around in circles?
Jeff Foust goes into the details (or links to other articles that do) on the Space Politics blog. Parabolic Arc gets granular as well. Mark Whittington points out on Associated Content that the legislation could put the moon back on NASA's list of potential destinations. The NASA Engineer blog links to a host of resources. Clark Lindsey has plenty to say (and point to) on RLV and Space Transport News. So does Keith Cowing at NASA Watch. Legislative action alerts have been issued by the Planetary Society and the Space Access Society.
The bottom line is that if you care about the cosmos, now is the time to let your senator know how you feel - particularly if your senator sits on the Commerce Committee.