Aug 09 2010

Senate passes its NASA plan before leaving on August recess

Huntsville Times

In something of a surprise, the U.S. Senate gave final approval late Thursday night to a NASA authorization bill called a compromise between supporters and critics of the Constellation rocket program.

Voting just hours before leaving Washington on their August recess, senators approved the NASA Authorization Act of 2010 co-authored by Sens. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., and Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas.

"By embracing this bipartisan vision for the future of NASA, the Senate has spoken with a unified voice," Hutchison said after the vote. "I encourage my colleagues in the House to take up this crucial bill in order to get NASA on track to continue its proud heritage of innovation and exploration."

The Senate bill instructs NASA to begin developing a new heavy-lift rocket next year and have it ready to fly in 2016. That could be good news for Huntsville, where much of NASA's propulsion expertise is centered.

The plan must still be approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee and meshed with separate NASA legislation now pending in the House.

Both House and Senate versions are potentially better news for Huntsville than what President Obama proposed earlier this year. The president wanted to cancel Constellation, the three-part rocket system NASA is building here and elsewhere to replace the retiring space shuttle.

The administration wanted to give $6 billion over five years to commercial companies to build rockets to haul crews and cargo to the International Space Station.

In the meantime, under the president's plan, NASA would have focused on robotic and other research aimed at a later flight to Mars. Some of that research would have been managed here.

Instead, the Senate bill sets aside only about $1.6 billion for commercial rockets, which is still more than in the bill making its way through the House.

The House wants NASA to continue a program much closer to Constellation, which included the Ares 1 rocket for trips to the space station and the moon, the Orion crew capsule, and the Ares V heavy-lift rocket.

A bill approving a Constellation-like plan cleared the House authorizing committee last month, but supporters couldn't get a full floor vote before the House adjourned for August.

A final tally on the Senate bill wasn't available Friday, but both of Alabama's senators - Sen. Richard Shelby, R-Tuscaloosa, and Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Mobile - supported it.

"The bill provides a clear path forward for exploration by including a heavy lift rocket capable of going beyond the space station and continuing Huntsville's leadership role in NASA's human exploration efforts," Shelby said Friday. "While the bill's passage is a good first step in the legislative process, it is important to note that the Appropriations Committee will determine the ultimate outcome.  As the ranking member of the appropriations subcommittee of jurisdiction, I will continue to work with my colleagues to enact a human space flight program that is worthy of a great nation."

Sessions was en route back to Alabama Friday and unavailable for comment.