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Spaceflight showdown delayed

Al Hartmann / Salt Lake Tribune via AP

An Ares 1 rocket motor is fired at ATK's test site in Utah on Aug. 31. The Ares1 rocket development effort was part of NASA's Constellation program, but it's hanging in limbo while Congress considers the space agency's spending plane.

NASA's future is still in limbo on Capitol Hill. This week, House Democrats floated what they called a compromise version of a bill laying out how the space agency should spend its money over the next three years, but the budget isn't likely to be sorted out until after the November elections.

The House leadership's latest proposal may represent a compromise between Republican and Democratic members, but it was not drawn up with the cooperation of the Senate — which has already passed its own version of the NASA authorization bill. The folks in favor of space commercialization are strongly urging the full House to go with the Senate's version instead.

For a while, it looked as if the House might put its version to a vote today (Friday). But as noted by Jeff Foust on the Space Politics blog, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D- Md., announced late Thursday that there'd be no more votes on the House floor until next Wednesday. The focus will be on putting together a continuing resolution to keep programs funded at their current level when the new fiscal year begins on Oct. 1 — and if that plays out the way it's expected to, that would extend NASA's time in limbo through the pre-election recess.

The latest revisions in the House proposal — laid out by Science and Technology Committee Chairman Bart Gordon, D-Tenn., and described by Space News — call for spending $1.2 billion over the next three years on commercial space taxis such as the Boeing CST-100 or the SpaceX Dragon. That's more than the $464 million the House version originally called for, but still less than the $1.6 billion proposed in the Senate version.

The bill's most vocal opponents say the money isn't the only reason why the House version should be thrown out, even in its amended form. They say the House version creates so much red tape that commercial launch providers will be hard-pressed to deliver what NASA is going to need when the space shuttle fleet retires next year.

The Space Frontier Foundation says the House bill would "result in extending our dependence on Russia, postponing improved access to the ISS [International Space Station] for scientists and engineers to do research, and pushing off Americans' chances to fly into orbit on an American rocket." The foundation also says the House bill would keep the door open for NASA's Constellation rocket development program, even though the White House and the space agency's top executives want it canceled.

So you'd think that Constellation's supporters would be happy about the House bill, right? Not really. Constellation's fortunes are a big issue in Huntsville, Ala., where Marshall Space Flight Center has been playing a key role in developing NASA's Ares 1 rocket. But The Huntsville Times' Lee Roop reports that the bill "appears to drop support for the Constellation rocket program and move closer to the Senate's vision for NASA, raising the possibility of a 2011 budget for the agency before Christmas."

Constellation or no Constellation? It really depends on how much you read into the bill's detailed provisions. Hillicon Valley noted that the latest House version "would likely result in heavy cuts to the Constellation program." The House version, like the Senate version, would provide money for an additional shuttle flight next year. It seems likely that no matter who prevails, NASA will be able to go ahead with the extra mission (STS-135), which would involve sending Atlantis to the International Space Station next June or July with a last big load of supplies.

There are plenty of hurdles to jump before any revised vision is set in stone. Even if the House and Senate settle on an authorization bill, a separate appropriation bill must be passed as well. The way things look now, NASA's spending would probably follow the status quo prescribed in a continuing resolution, at least until Congress convenes for a lame-duck session after the elections.

The folks at the Space Frontier Foundation, as well as at the Space Access Society, are calling upon the backers of commercial space efforts to contact their House representatives and urge them to go with the Senate bill. No matter how you feel about the specifics of space policy, this would be a good time to let your lawmaker know how you feel by sending an e-mail or making a phone call via the Capitol switchboard (202-224-3121).

Where do you stand? Checking with these websites will give you the flavor of the debate:

And of course feel free to weigh in on the future of NASA and space commercialization in your comments below. Speaking of space commercialization, Space News and Aviation Week are reporting that SpaceX has postponed the second test launch of its Falcon 9 rocket until Nov. 8 at the earliest. This launch will mark the first tryout for an operational Dragon capsule, which could eventually carry cargo or even astronauts to the International Space Station.

Correction for 10:35 a.m. ET Sept. 24: Of course I meant to write $1.6 billion rather than $1.6 million for the Senate's proposed allocation for commercial space taxis. Sorry about that! Thanks to Joe Latrell for pointing out the error.


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