Senate Panel Cuts Commercial Spaceship Funding for NASA

WASHINGTON? A Senate panel approved a$19 billion NASA budget Wednesday that would cut in half the U.S. spaceagency's2011 request for a new commercial crew initiative while pumping anunsought $3billion into continued development of the Orion Crew ExplorationVehicle and aheavy-lift rocket needed to launch it into deep space.

"Thebill restructures NASA's human spaceflightprograms providing for a new heavy-liftlaunch vehicle crew capsulefor exploring beyond low-earthorbit," said Sen. BarbaraMikulski (D-Md.), the veteran lawmakerwho chairs the Senate Appropriationscommerce, justice, science subcommitteethat introduced and approvedthe spending bill during ashort legislative markup session July 21.

TheNASA funding measure is part of abroader $60 billion spending bill that also funds the Commerce andJusticedepartments. The full Senate Appropriations Committee is scheduled totake upthe bill July 22.

Mikulskisaid the bill funds "arestructured, very neatly crafted balanced space program" that wouldinvest in space technology research, continue flying the internationalspacestation through 2020 and fund one additional space shuttle flightprovided anindependent body determines it to be safe.

Detailsof the NASA spending packagewere not made availableduring mark-up, though subcommitteestaff members said afterward the measure fully funds NASA's$312 request for its Commmercial OrbitalSpace Transportation (COTS) program nextyear but provides only half of the$500 million the agency isseeking for a new programmeant to foster development commercialcrew taxis capable offerrying astronauts to the International Space Station.

Thebill also includes $1.9 billion toinitiate development of a new heavy-lift launch vehicle in 2011, asignificantdeparture from U.S. President Barack Obama's proposal to wait until2015 tosettle on a design for the nation's next heavy lifter and startbuilding it.Under the budget plan the president sent Congress in February, NASAwouldinvest $3 billion in heavy lift research and other propulsiontechnologies overthe next five years, starting with $560 million in 2011.

Thespending bill approved July 21 bythe subcommittee also includes $1.1 billion for Orion, the LockheedMartin-designed crew capsule Obama initially sought to cancel alongwith therest of NASA's Constellation program but which won a partial reprievein Aprilwhen the president directed NASA to use the Orion design as the basisfor aspace station crew lifeboat.

Senateaides said the appropriationsbill largely supports the overall framework of NASA authorizinglegislationadopted July 15 by the Senate Commerce, Science and TransportationCommittee,including funding for the additional space shuttle flight next year.Mikulskisaid she worked closely with Senate authorizers and her subcommittee'srankingmember, Sen. Richard Shelby (R-Ala.), in drafting it.

Shelby,a staunch opponent of Obama's plan to abandon Constellationdespite nearly $10 billioninvested in it to date,said the subcommittee's spending billwould alter the president's planfor the human spaceflightprogram.

"Itchanges some of the directionthat the president would recommend that we go with the heavy lift thingfor thefuture," Shelby told reporters following the mark-up. "It gives ushope, but at the end of the day I think NASA is going to have to show alot ofvision where they want to go and how we're going to get there, and thenwe'vegot to consider how we're going to fund it."

Mikulskisaid the bill supports NASA's$2.78 billion request for space station operations and provides $1.6billionfor the space shuttle, or roughly $600 million more than the agencyrequested.Another $904 million is included for aeronautics and space technologyresearch,an amount Senate aides said includes $579.6 million for aeronautics and$325million for space technology research.

Duringthe markup session, Mikulski saidthe bill seeks to "protect astronaut safety" and address "workerdislocation," a reference to the plight of NASA aerospace workersexpectedto lose their jobs when the agency retires its fleet of space shuttleorbitersnext year.

Shealso said the bill would "dealwith contract termination in a wise and prudent way," referring toNASA'sapproach to budgeting for Constellation contract termination reservesneeded tocover industry costs associated with canceling orders, vacating leasesandpink-slipping employees if the program is shutdown.

Thebill also fully funds NASA's $5billion request for science programs, including $448 million for theJames WebbSpace Telescope, a next-generation flagship astronomy mission that iscostingNASA more than expected.

"Wehave fully funded James Webbbut we've put them on notice to get themselves in discipline," Mikulskisaid following the meeting. "I will not tolerate the kind of costoverrunsthat just leached all over our bill with [the National Polar-orbitingOperational Environmental Satellite System] (NPOESS), because theNPOESScreated significant problems. We like the concept of the Webb, butwe're not inthe overrun business. This committee is really going to be tough onthat."

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