The U.S. Senate quietly and efficiently put its stamp of approval on a compromise vision for future spaceflight that would keep the space shuttle program going for another year, fund efforts to put astronauts on private-sector spaceships and start work on a big new rocket for trips beyond Earth orbit.
Two big questions are still up in the air: Will the House go along with the Senate's plan? And is $19 billion a year enough for NASA to do what Congress wants it to do?
The Senate version of the authorization bill would let NASA fly an additional shuttle mission beyond the two currently left on the launch schedule, in order to help close the gap between the shuttle fleet's retirement and the deployment of whatever type of spaceship comes afterward. The extra mission, which would have to be cleared by a safety review, would likely send the shuttle Atlantis to the International Space Station in mid-2011.
The bill also sets aside $1.3 billion over three years to boost commercial development of space vehicles capable of sending astronauts to the space station. That's on top of the billions of dollars already committed for commercial cargo deliveries.
The money for commercial crew development, or CCDev, is significantly less than the $3.3 billion sought by the Obama administration for that time frame as part of a $6 billion package over five years. But it's significantly more than the $150 million called for in the House version of the bill. For that reason, the White House as well as prospective spaceship-builders favor the Senate bill, in line with the adage that "half a loaf (or in this case, a third) is better than none."
Both the House and the Senate version would shift some of NASA's money over to the accelerated development of a heavy-lift rocket, but the House would keep more of NASA's Constellation rocket program alive (even though the White House wants it canceled).
House leaders had been gearing up to get the full chamber's approval of their version a week ago, but the plug was pulled on the vote after an outcry from California members as well as the backers of space commercialization. Critics of the House version are now hoping that the Senate version will win acceptance once Congress returns from its August recess.
That was the sentiment expressed by senators from both sides of the aisle after the Senate approved its bill late Thursday.
"This bill offers a blueprint to move America's civilian space program forward in a smart, fiscally responsible way. ... I'm proud the Senate has moved it one step closer to becoming law," Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said in a statement.
Here's how the Commerce Committee's ranking GOP member, Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas, put it: "Senate passage of this comprehensive legislation is a critical milestone that will boost America's human spaceflight program. By embracing this bipartisan vision for the future of NASA, the Senate has spoken with a unified voice. I encourage my colleagues in the House to take up this crucial bill in order to get NASA on track to continue its proud heritage of innovation and exploration."
In addition to the authorization bill, a parallel appropriations bill will have to be passed by both houses to support the plan with actual money.
The space agency's total budget would be set at $19 billion, in line with the White House's request. But some folks are worried about the fact that the Senate version cuts back the up-front money for private-sector spaceship development ... while calling for the development of a heavy-lifter on a budget that's even leaner than the one provided for Constellation.
Does that mean NASA will have two underfunded spaceship development programs on its hands? After all, this whole controversy over NASA's future plans for human spaceflight began last year when an independent panel found that the Constellation effort couldn't be done at the specified spending levels. Last week, space analyst (and rocket engineer) Rand Simberg wondered whether NASA was "being set up to fail (again)."