After months of debate, a NASA spending bill is expectedto appear for a vote on the House floor today (Sept. 29).?
House lawmakers are expected to vote on a version of the NASA authorization billpassed by the Senate in August, instead of a compromise bill floated last weekby Congressman Bart Gordon (D-Tennessee), who chairs the House subcommittee onscience and technology. If no vote occurs, the measure would have to wait untilafter the Nov. 2 elections.
?I anticipate that the House will consider the Senate versionof the NASA reauthorization on Wednesday," Gordon said in a statementreleased Monday (Sept. 27). [NASA's New Direction: FAQ]
Extra shuttle flight on the table
The Senate approved its version of NASA's authorizationbill on Aug. 5. That bill, S. 3729, approved ?$19 billion for NASA in 2011 aspart of a three-year budget of nearly $60 billion.
If approved by the House as is, the Senate's NASA billwould officially allow NASA to add one extra space shuttle flight to the twofinal missions already planned before the shuttle fleet is retired in 2011. Butthat would not affect the coming Oct. 1 layoffs of nearly 1,400 shuttle workersby NASA contractor United Space Alliance ? a joint venture by Boeing andLockheed Martin that oversees NASA's shuttle fleet.
USA announced the shuttle worker layoffs inJuly as part of a workforce reduction plan due to the space shuttle fleet'simpending retirement. Those layoffs, which affect workers in Florida, Alabamaand Texas, will take effect Friday.
At the time, USA spokeswoman Kari Fluegel told SPACE.comthat the layoffs would occur despite the addition by Congress of an extrashuttle flight to NASA's ?schedule.
In addition to the extra shuttle flight, the bill wouldextend the International Space Station through at least 2020. It also setsaside $1.3 billion over three years to support the development of commercialspacecraft, less than half of the $3.3 billion the White House has requested.?
The Senate bill also directs NASA to begin work on a newheavy-lift rocket in 2011, which would be essential to launch massivecomponents for future deep space missions. The White House's space plan calls for thatwork to begin later, in 2015.
Supporters of the Senate bill said its passage shouldclear the way for new jobs among commercial spacefirms, which NASA plans to rely on to send astronauts into low-Earth orbit aspart its new space exploration plan.
"A protracted stalemate over the NASA authorizationbill would likely cause continued layoffs and would make it more difficult forcommercial companies to ramp up hiring," said Bretton Alexander, presidentof the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, in a statement. "We cannotafford to delay the creation of new jobs, and the Senate bill, which wesupport, could be on the President?s desk before the end of the week."
Critical time for NASA
President Obama's new space plan, announced inFebruary, would cancel NASA's moon-oriented Constellation program and replaceit with a more ambitious program aimed at deep space missions. TheConstellation program called ?for Orion space capsules andAres rockets to follow the shuttle program.
The new NASA plan, Obama later said in April, should sendastronauts to an asteroid by 2025 and then aim for a manned Mars mission in the2030s.
Obama also tasked NASA to draw on commercial spacevehicles to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Untilthose commercial vehicles are available, the U.S. would rely on Russian Soyuzcraft to fly humans in space and unmanned Russian, Japanese and Europeanfreighters to launch cargo.
Gordon said he hopes private companies will succeed withtheir commercial space vehicles, but he has reservations.
"I am wary of being completely dependent on them,because if they fail, we will be dependent on the Russians for longer thanabsolutely necessary," he said.
Some lawmakers unsatisfied
In his statement, Gordon said it was clear a compromisebill would not make it through the House and Senate before time ran out. Thefiscal year ends Thursday (Sept. 30), leaving little room for morenegotiations.
"For the sake of providing certainty, stability, andclarity to the NASA workforce and larger space community, I felt it was betterto consider a flawed bill than no bill at all as the new fiscal yearbegins," Gordon said.
Among Gordon's major concerns is the Senate provision foran extra shuttle flight in 2011, as well as funding to speed up development ofa heavy-lift rocket to jump-start NASA's deep space exploration effort. TheSenate version, Gordon contends, does not explain how the shuttle program'sextension will be paid for. NASA has said it costs $200 million a month to keepthe shuttle program going.
"TheSenate bill includes an unfunded mandate to keep the Shuttle program goingthrough the remainder of FY 2011, even after the Shuttle is retired, at a costof $500 million or more without clarifying where the funds will come from, allbut ensuring that other important NASA programs will be cannibalized,"Gordon said.
NASA officials have said the extra shuttle flight wouldlikely fly sometime around June 2011 and deliver large spare parts and cargo tothe space station.
The shuttle Discovery is slated to launch Nov. 1 todeliver a new storage room and humanoid robot prototype to the station. Theshuttle Endeavour is slated to fly Feb, 26, 2011 to deliver a nearly $2 billionastrophysics experiment ? called the Alpha Magnetic Spectrometer ? to the spacestation. After that flight, the $100 billion station will be complete aftermore than 12 years of construction.
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