House Version of NASA Bill Puts Brakes on Commercial Spaceship Plan
WASHINGTON ? House lawmakers released a draft of NASA authorizing legislation Monday that would continue much of the work being done under the agency?s Constellation program with a focus on fielding a government-owned system capable of ferrying crews to and from the International Space Station by the end of 2015.
The bill text, issued by the House Science and Technology Committee, backs U.S. President Barack Obama?s proposal to spend $100 billion on NASA over the next five years. But whereas Obama?s plan would allocate $5.9 billion over that time period to foster development of commercially operated space taxis, the House bill provides just $250 million, with an additional $500 million to come via a government-backed loan program.
In addition, the legislation would authorize $22.6 billion through 2015 to develop rockets and spacecraft that leverage NASA?s roughly $10 billion investment in Constellation, a 5-year-old effort to build hardware optimized for lunar exploration that Obama proposed abandoning in his 2011 budget request.
?This is a bipartisan bill that embraces many of the president?s goals for our space program while also ensuring that we have an executable and fiscally responsible plan,? Rep. Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.), chairman of the House Science and Technology Committee, stated in a joint news release issued late Monday.
?For too long, the tasks NASA has been asked to undertake haven?t been matched to available resources,? Gordon said, adding that his panel intends to mark up the bill July 22. ?We are facing tough economic times that demand tough choices. We can?t do it all. This bill makes those choices and provides the nation with a credible, sustainable, and worthy space and aeronautics program.?
Although the bill supports elements of Obama?s plan, including a plan to continue flying the space station through at least 2020 and a space technology program designed to spur innovation, it rebuffs the White House proposal to cancel Constellation and rely on commercially owned and operated vehicles to send astronaut crews to the orbiting outpost. It also contrasts with companion legislation approved by the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee July 15, touted as a compromise by its authors, that provides $1.3 billion for commercial crew initiatives over the next three years.
Both the House and Senate measures would require NASA to immediately begin work on a heavy-lift rocket that leverages the space shuttle solid-rocket motor technology that serves as the foundation of the Ares rockets designed as part of the Constellation program. Obama?s plan is to scrap the Ares rockets and have NASA spend the next five years studying heavy-lift options utilizing engines fueled by kerosene and liquid oxygen.
Obama directed NASA to settle on a heavy-lift launcher design by 2015. The Senate bill calls for a heavy-lift vehicle and deep space capsule to be fully operational by the end of 2016; the House bill would give NASA six months from the date of enactment to select a launch vehicle design and sets a goal of fielding the rocket by ?the end of the current decade.?
Bretton Alexander, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation here, said the House bill would do little to narrow the gap between the space shuttle?s scheduled retirement next year and a follow-on capability, forcing NASA to rely on Russia to deliver U.S. astronauts to the space station until a U.S. domestic capability is re-established.
?Based on the proposed levels of funding for Russian Soyuz flights versus commercial crew services, it would appear that the House Science Committee has more faith in Russian technology developed in the 1960s than in America?s own aerospace industry,? Alexander said in a July 19 e-mail, asserting that the bill fails to fund the goals it sets for the agency. ?At a time when private companies are willing to invest their own money to help create jobs, the House Science Committee bill is a clear job destroyer.?
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