WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate approved a NASA authorization bill Sept. 25 that gives Congress the authority to spend up to $20.2 billion on the U.S. space agency in 2009 and places new conditions on the agency?s plan to retire the space shuttle.

If the bill becomes law, NASA would be directed to take no steps prior to April 30, 2009 that would preclude the option of flying the space shuttle beyond 2010, according to a congressional aide familiar with the legislation. The authorization includes $1 billion to accelerate development of the Orion Crew Exploration Vehicle and its Ares 1 rocket and $100 million for the development and demonstration of a commercial crew vehicle.

Both Barack Obama and John McCain, the two major U.S. presidential candidates, have called out in recent weeks for NASA to keep its options open in regards to shuttle retirement.

While the bill approves a 2009 budget that is approximately $2.6 billion above the White House request, it provides no actual money. The House of Representatives approved Aug. 26 a spending resolution that would keep NASA funded at its 2008 level of $17.3 billion until March.

Still, the bill would require NASA to submit to Congress within 120 days of enactment a report on extending shuttle operations beyond 2010. NASA Administrator Mike Griffin ordered such an assessment in late August but said in an interview that the results would not be publicly released unless otherwise ordered by Congress.

The bill would also formalize NASA?s plan to launch two dedicated logistics flights to the international space station and require the agency to add a flight to deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer to the orbital outpost. At the same time, the bill also outlines conditions under which NASA could cancel that mission, such as extraordinary marginal costs.

Beyond the shuttle language, the bill would also send NASA into the next presidential administration with a fresh endorsement of its plan to replace the space shuttle with Orion and Ares and set its sights on a 2020 return to the Moon.

While time is running out for passage of the bill, a congressional aide said the House of Representatives was poised to take the legislation up under a suspension of rules that would allow it to pass on a simple voice vote.