WASHINGTON - The last time Congress passed legislation authorizing NASA programs and spending, much of the focus was on controlling the runaway costs of the International Space Station.

What a difference five years makes. A Senate panel approved a NASA authorization bill Thursday that embraces the exploration vision President Bush articulated in a speech at the space agency's headquarters 17 months ago.

Although NASA is already spending money and making plans for new vehicles and missions to take astronauts to the moon, which Bush requested, Congress has not officially endorsed the president's plan.

The authorization bill, passed by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, would give NASA the green light to proceed.

"The exploration, development and permanent habitation of the moon will inspire the nation, spur commerce, imagination and excitement around the world and open the possibility of further exploration of Mars," according to the legislation, which now goes to the full Senate for a vote.

The House has yet to introduce its version. Rep. Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y., chairman of the House Science Committee, has promised legislation this summer.

While looking to the future, the Senate bill also seeks to protect NASA personnel working at Kennedy Space Center, Johnson Space Center and elsewhere in support of the shuttle program.

The legislation would bar the space agency from retiring the three remaining shuttle orbiters until after the shuttle's successor craft is proven safe for astronauts.

The original exploration plan by the Bush administration and promoted by former NASA Administrator Sean O'Keefe called for a four-year gap between the time the shuttles were to retire -- 2010 -- and the flight certification of the new Crew Exploration Vehicle.

Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Melbourne, inserted the shuttle retirement provision in the Senate legislation.

"We need to have assured access to space on a continuous basis," said Dan Shapiro, Nelson's legislative director.

The authorization bill also would set spending limits for NASA programs for the next five years. The limits are used by congressional appropriators as guidelines during the annual budget process.

The legislation authorizes spending for NASA between 2006 and 2010 that is slightly more than the amount Bush requested. The bill authorizes $16.5 billion in 2006, moving up to $18.5 billion in 2010. Bush requested $16.4 billion in 2006, moving up to $18 billion in 2010.

Last week, the House approved its version of the NASA appropriations bill, giving the agency approximately $16.5 billion for the fiscal year that begins Oct. 1.

Senate appropriators have approved a NASA budget slightly below the level approved by the House. The two bills must be reconciled before a final vote is taken.

The Senate authorization bill also directs NASA to begin preparations for a Hubble servicing mission using one of the shuttles.

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