Senate Passes Stimulus Bill Containing $1.3 Billion for NASA

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate passed an $838 billion economic stimulus package Tuesday that includes $1.3 billion for NASA — more than double the amount the House approved Jan. 28 for the U.S. space agency in its version of the bill.

The Senate voted 61-37 on its version of the bill, which proposes spending $450 million to narrow the five-year gap between the scheduled 2010 retirement of the space shuttle and 2015 debut of its successor. The House put no money into addressing the gap.

Congressional negotiators now must hammer out differences between the Senate measure and the $819 billion House bill, which did not receive any Republican votes. President Barack Obama has said he hopes to have a final bill on his desk for signature by the President's Day federal holiday Feb. 16.

Both the House and Senate spending plans put additional money toward NASA's Earth science and climate monitoring programs, with $450 million proposed by the Senate and $400 million included in the House version. The Senate also proposed spending $200 million on aeronautics, compared with $150 million proposed by the House, and $200 million to repair damage caused by Hurricane Ike to Houston-area facilities last summer, compared with $50 million proposed by the House.

NASA's funding in the stimulus package had come under scrutiny by Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who led negotiations between Democrats and Republicans to shape a version of the bill aimed at garnering enough Republican support to pass. Nelson had said NASA funding was among the initiatives he wanted to cut after the Senate spending plan swelled to nearly $900 billion.

NASA's 2008 budget was $17.3 billion. In a draft internal report last month, the agency estimated it would cost an extra $5 billion to extend the space shuttle fleet’s service beyond 2010 to about 2012.

Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), who initially proposed $500 million for narrowing the gap between the shuttle and its successor, was able to convince his colleagues to retain $450 million. Nelson wants to reduce the amount of time the U.S. space agency is forced to rely on Russia to transport astronauts to and from the international space station, a situation he called "shameful" in a Feb. 3 letter to Sen. Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.

"Under current plans and funding, we will soon face a gap of five or more years during which we will lack a U.S. vehicle capable of taking our astronauts to and from the International Space Station. As a result, we will have no choice but to pay Russia for seats on their spacecraft, even as we lay off thousands of U.S. aerospace workers across the country," Nelson wrote.

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Becky Ianotta is a former SpaceNews reporter covering space industry and policy news from 2008 to 2009. Becky earned a bachelor's degree in English/Journalism from the University of Miami. She spent five years as an editor with the Key West Citizen in Florida before joining the SpaceNews team. She later wrote for Air Force Times before taking her current position as communication director for Mother's Against Drunk Driving.