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NASA Bill Hangs Condition on Shuttle Retirement

WASHINGTON-- The senior U.S. senators from Florida and Texas are pushing back againstNASA's plan to retire the U.S. space shuttle fleet by the end of the decaderegardless of whether a replacement vehicle is ready to enter service by then.

Sens. KayBailey Hutchison (R-Texas), chairwoman of the Senate Commerce science and spacesubcommittee, and Bill Nelson (Fla.), her Democratic counterpart, introduced abill June 21 that would require NASA to keep the space shuttle orbiter flyinguntil a new crew transport vehicle has flown.

NASAAdministrator Mike Griffin is adamant about retiring the shuttle in 2010, buthas said he intends to accelerate development of the proposed Crew ExplorationVehicle (CEV) in order to minimize any gap in the United States' ability to puthumans in space. NASA previously had planned to field the CEV in 2014. AlthoughGriffin has said he wants the CEV to be ready before then, he has not made itsavailability a precondition for retiring the shuttle.

The billsponsored by Hutchison and Nelson would change that.

Specifically,the bill says, "In order to ensure continuous human access to space, theAdministrator may not retire the Space Shuttle orbiter until a replacementhuman-rated spacecraft system has demonstrated that it can take humans intoEarth orbit and return them safely."

The spaceshuttle language is included in a broader measure, S. 1281, which authorizesappropriations for NASA for 2006-2010.

While thebill endorses NASA's new exploration goals, which include returning astronautsto the Moon by 2020 in preparation for eventual trips to Mars and beyond, itparts with NASA on both shuttle retirement and on plans to eliminateinternational space station-based research that does not directly support thespace agency's exploration plans.

The SenateCommerce Committee is scheduled to vote on the legislation June 23. Lawmakersin the House of Representatives, meanwhile, intend to introduce their own NASAauthorization bill June 27. The House version of the bill, according to sourcesfamiliar with it, would not require NASA to keep flying the shuttle until theCEV is ready. The House and Senate must sort out any differences between theirrespective versions of a bill before it can become law.

Congresslast sent a NASA authorization bill to the White House for the president'ssignature in 2000.

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