Senate Committee Approves Bill for Extra Shuttle Mission
NASA's space shuttle Discovery swoops down to a smooth landing at the Shuttle Landing Facility of NASA's Kennedy Space Center on June 14, 2008 to conclude the STS-124 mission.
Credit: NASA/Mike Gayle

The Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved a NASA authorization bill this week that would forbid the U.S. space agency from retiring the space shuttle before completing all remaining missions, including an additional flight to deliver the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer (AMS) to the International Space Station.

A similar provision was included in the NASA authorization bill already approved by the U.S. House of Representatives. But the Senate version, approved Tuesday, differs in that it would direct NASA to keep all space shuttle contracts open through 2010, the date NASA intends to stop flying the vehicle.

NASA Administrator Mike Griffin told Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), the authorization bill?s main sponsor, during a June 23 field hearing in Florida, that requiring NASA to keep all shuttle contracts open until it completes its flight manifest would cost $3 billion to $4 billion the agency has not budgeted. Griffin also said it such a step would not be necessary in order to ensure NASA can fly the AMS since it has the hardware it would need for such a mission already in the pipeline. However, Griffin said flying AMS would still cost NASA $300 million to $400 million that it does not have.

The White House Office of Management and Budget has said it is strongly opposed to Congress requiring NASA to fly the AMS mission but stopped short of threatening to veto legislation containing such a provision.

The one-year NASA authorization bill moving in the Senate, like its House-adopted counterpart, also recommends funding NASA at over $20 billion for 2009 - an amount more than $2 billion above both what the White House requested and what the House and Senate Appropriations Committees included in the spending bills that would actually fund NASA.