WASHINGTON ? The U.S. Senate passed a NASA authorization bill Thursday that would add a space shuttle flight to the manifest next year and require the space agency to get started immediately on a heavy-lift rocket capable of supporting manned missions beyond low-Earth orbit.

The bill also authorizes funding for NASA's proposed commercial crew initiative, but at a level below the agency's request.

"This bill offers a blueprint to move America's civilian space program forward in a smart, fiscally responsible way," Sen. John D. (Jay) Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, said in a statement. "We've had to take a clear, hard look at what we want from NASA in the years and decades to come. We've asked the tough questions. The result is a truly bipartisan bill that will help refocus and reinvigorate the agency, while making key investments in aeronautics, science, and education. I'm proud the Senate has moved it one step closer to becoming law."

A companion NASA authorization bill approved by the House Science & Technology Committee July 22 took a harder line on NASA's planned $3.3 billion investment in a commercial crew transportation system over the next three years, approving $150 million through 2013.

The House Science & Technology Committee's bill (H.R. 5781) also would continue much of the work being done under NASA's Constellation program, a 5-year-old effort to build new rockets and spacecraft optimized for lunar missions that President Barack Obama targeted for termination in his 2011 spending proposal delivered to Congress in February.

Opponents of H.R. 5781 prevented the bill from going to the floor for a vote before the House recessed July 30.

This story was provided by Space News, dedicated to covering all aspects of the space industry.