July 16, 2010

Senate Space Plan Postpones Shuttle Retirement

After months of debate about the future of the U.S. space program, the Senate's Commerce, Science and Transportation committee unanimously passed a plan on Thursday to postpone retirement of the nation's fleet of space shuttles.

The authorization bill was part of a job-saving compromise to president Obama's directive to end NASA's program to return astronauts to the moon.  The retirement of the space shuttle fleet, which had been slated for next year, had threatened thousands of jobs at Florida's Kennedy Space Center, along with jobs in Texas, Alabama and Utah.

The Senate plan would allow NASA to add one more space shuttle mission before retiring the fleet, and move forward with plans to send astronauts to an asteroid and on to Mars.

"NASA is an agency in transition. We've had to take a clear, hard look at what we want from our space agency in the years and decades to come," said Senator John Rockefeller (D-WV), who heads the Senate committee.

"In short, this bill provides a blueprint to get our nation's space program moving forward in a smart, fiscally responsible way, and in a way that will maintain America's edge in space flight, exploration, science and aeronautics," he said.

"I've made my views on this matter very clear: NASA's role cannot stay static. It must innovate and move in a new direction," he said in a statement.

The additional shuttle mission is planned for next year, and would follow two flights currently scheduled for November and next February to complete construction of the $100 billion International Space Station (ISS).

The new Senate bill also directs NASA to begin work immediately on a large, heavy-lift rocket, instead of waiting until 2015 as President Barack Obama called for in his space strategy vision unveiled earlier this year.  The rocket would play a critical role in any missions to an asteroid or Mars.

The Senate's three-year NASA spending plan would also accelerate the development of spacecraft for deep space missions to asteroids as early as 2016, rather than 2025 "“ the goal announced by President Obama earlier this year.

But the plan supports the president's proposal to extend the ISS program through at least 2020.

The future of NASA has been the subject of intense debate in recent months, with many calling for an extension of the nation's space shuttle program.
NASA's Constellation program to return to the moon had originally been planned to replace the space shuttle, but President Obama's proposal had called for canceling that initiative.  But some members of Congress have pushed to keep Constellation, or to replace it with a more shuttle-derived alternative.

"For many months, this committee has been working on a bipartisan basis to develop a strong and forward-looking reauthorization bill for NASA," Senator Rockefeller said.

"Through this process, I believe we've reached a sensible center. This bill offers what I like to call a "Ëœthird way' for NASA."

The Senate committee called their authorization plan a compromise between Obama's proposal and its detractors.

"It has been a long and very hard road to get here," said committee member Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-TX) in a statement.

"We began more than four months ago with a new proposal for NASA introduced by the President which I believe would have ended the era of U.S. dominance in space exploration, threatened the use of the space station, and jeopardized manned spaceflight.

"This legislation approved today represents a strong balance between the need for investment in new technology and the continued evolution of the commercial market to take an increasing role in supporting our efforts in low Earth orbit," said Hutchison, one of the bill's co-sponsors.

In addition to giving the go ahead for an extra shuttle mission, the Senate is allowing NASA to proceed with preparations to launch critical supplies and spare parts to the ISS to prepare for coming years without a shuttle fleet.

The extra shuttle flight, likely aboard the shuttle Atlantis, is scheduled for next summer, and will carry a four-person crew that will help complete construction of the ISS.

The space shuttles are the only vehicles currently capable of transporting large experiments and spare parts for the orbiting laboratory.   Once they are decommissioned, NASA will use Russian spacecraft to transport crews and cargo to the ISS until commercial vehicles are available.

President Obama had called for the cancellation of NASA's Constellation program to develop new rockets and spacecraft to return astronauts to the moon.  Instead, he proposed a bold goal of sending astronauts to an asteroid by 2025, and on to Mars in the mid-2030s.

The Senate bill is largely in keeping with the plan put forth in February by President Obama.  But there are some key differences.

For instance, the Senate bill replaces Obama's push for new technology programs with a mix of initiatives designed to reduce the amount of time the U.S. would be without vehicles to carry astronauts into space.

The two plans also differ in their funding allocations.  The president's plan calls for a $19 billion NASA budget in 2011, a slight increase from 2010 funding levels, and allocates $6 billion over five years to support the development of commercial space vehicles that could transport American astronauts into space once the shuttle fleet is retired next year.

However, the Senate plan allocates $1.6 billion of funding for commercial spacecraft development over the next three years, according to a statement released by committee member Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), who chairs the Senate's space subcommittee.

"The goal was to preserve U.S. leadership in space exploration and keep as much of the rocket-industry talent as possible employed," said Nelson.

Supporters of private spaceflight have criticized the Senate bill for its reduction in funding for the development of commercial spacecrafts.

Both the Senate and the White House plan call for roughly $3 billion per year to continue the ISS, and $5 billion annually for science initiatives.


Image Caption: Time-lapse photography captures space shuttle Discovery's path to orbit. Liftoff from Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida was at 6:21 a.m. EDT April 5 on the STS-131 mission. The seven-member crew will deliver the multi-purpose logistics module Leonardo, filled with supplies, a new crew sleeping quarters and science racks that will be transferred to the International Space Station's laboratories. Photo credit: NASA/Ben Cooper


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