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Congress Approves Bill for NASA's New Space Plan

This story was updated at 1:16 a.m. ET.

Congresspassed a vital NASA authorization bill late Wednesday (Sept. 29), paving theway for an extra space shuttle flight next year and a new human spaceflightplan that takes aim at missions to an asteroid and Mars.

TheNASA authorization bill approved by the House includes a $19 billion budget in 2011for the U.S. space agency, and a total of $58 billion through 2013. It pavesthe way for several NASA projects, among them a newheavy-lift rocket for deep space missions and funding to aid the development ofcommercial space vehicles for eventual NASA use.

Thebill was originally approved by the Senate on Aug. 5. The House opted to voteon the Senate's NASAauthorization bill after running out of time on a compromise versionproposed by Congressman Bart Gordon (R-Tennessee) last week. The fiscal yearends Thursday (Sept. 30).

TheHouse officially voted in favor of the bill at about 11:37 p.m. EDT (0337 GMT).The 304-118 decision came just before Congress heads into recess until after the Nov. 2elections.

PresidentObama's new space plan, announced in February, cancelled NASA's moon-oriented Constellationprogram set forth by former President George W. Bush and called for moreambitious deep space missions to an asteroid and Mars. The Constellationprogram was responsible for the Orionspace capsules and Ares rockets set to follow the shuttle program.

"Passageof this bill represents an important step forward towards helping us achievethe key goals set by the President," NASA chief Charles Bolden said in astatement in response to House vote. "This important change in directionwill not only help us chart a new path in space, but can help us retool for theindustries and jobs of the future that will be vital for long term economicgrowth."

Extrashuttle flight, commercial space funds

TheNASA authorization bill, S. 3729, officially clears NASA to add one extra spaceshuttle flight to the two final missions already planned before the shuttlefleet is retired in 2011.

Italso allows NASA to extend its role in the International Space Station throughat least 2020 and sets aside $1.3 billion over three years to support thedevelopment of commercial spacecraft, less than half of the $3.3 billion theWhite House has requested. 

Obama's space plan tasks NASA to draw on commercialspace vehicles to ferry astronauts to and from the International SpaceStation. Until those commercial vehicles are available, the U.S. would rely onRussian Soyuz craft to fly humans in space and unmanned Russian, Japanese andEuropean freighters to launch cargo.

NASAofficials have said the extra shuttle flight would likely fly sometime aroundJune 2011 aboard the Atlantis orbiter. It will deliver large spare parts andcargo to the space station. The space agency chose a veteran four-man crew forthis final space shuttle flight earlier this month.

Butthe extra space mission 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 shuttleworker layoffs in July as part of a workforce reduction plan due to thespace shuttle fleet's impending retirement.

Thelayoffs, which affect workers in Florida, Alabama and Texas, will take effectFriday. USA spokeswoman Kari Fluegel told SPACE.com in July that the layoffswould occur despite the addition by Congress of an extra shuttle flight toNASA's schedule. However, the extra mission could affect plans for any futurelayoffs, she added.

NASAand its contractors are currently preparing the shuttle Discovery to launchNov. 1 to deliver a new storage room and humanoid robot prototype to thestation. The shuttle Endeavour is slated to fly Feb, 26, 2011 to deliver anearly $2 billion astrophysics experiment ? called the Alpha MagneticSpectrometer ? to the space station. After that flight, the $100 billionstation will be complete after more than 12 years of construction.

Bignew rocket

Obama'sspace plan also calls for astronauts to visit an asteroid by 2025 and then aimfor a manned Mars mission in the 2030s. A heavy-lift rocket for those missionswas slated to begin development in 2015.

Underthe spending bill approved Wednesday, NASA would be directed to begin work onthat heavy-lift rocket in 2011 ? four years earlier than the White Houseproposal.

CongressmanPete Olson (R-Texas) said such a rocket is vital for NASA to fulfill itsoriginal purpose.

"Ourfuture in space is not in low-Earth orbit. We have to go beyond," Olsonsaid during the vote's debate. "A heavy-lift vehicle will enable us toachieve the true mission of the agency ? to explore."

NewNASA bill

Gordonsaid Wednesday that while he had a number of concerns about the Senate's NASAbill, he believed that "a flawed bill is better than no bill at all."

Thebill should help NASA and its workforce get on with the transition from itsprevious Constellation program to the new deepspace exploration plan set forth by President Obama, House officials said

"Whilethe bill before us today is far from perfect, it offers clear direction for aNASA that?s floundering," said Ralph Hall (R-Texas), the ranking member of the HouseScience and Technology Committee, during the bill's discussion.

?However,some House members took issue with what they called the bill's "unfundedmandate" to continue the space shuttle program through Sept. 30, 2011. Theextension would cost some $500 million and lawmakers questioned where NASA willfind the extra funds.

CongresswomanGabrielle Giffords (D-Arizona), who is married to space shuttle commander MarkKelly, said the bill "lacks serious budgetary discipline."

Some lawmakers expect the NASA authorization bill will preserve some jobs andcreate others associated with new programs.  

"Withouta bill, the jobs of a world class NASA workforce and thousands ofhighly-skilled private contractors who support human space flight would havebeen lost," Hall said in a statement released after the vote.

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