Senate Panel Near Agreement on Bill to Roll Back NASA Changes

NEW ORLEANS — Republican and Democratic leaders on the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation are moving toward an authorization bill that would reverse large swaths of President Obama’s proposed changes to NASA’s human space flight program, a ranking Republican involved in the talks confirmed. The bill, which lays out the direction of the nation’s space program for the next three years, would add at least one more space shuttle flight, speed development of a heavy-lift rocket and move ahead with building a spacecraft to venture beyond low-Earth orbit. It would also slow down a rush to invest in commercial rockets by requiring companies to demonstrate their capabilities before receiving large contracts for delivering astronauts to the International Space Station, said a staff member who was not authorized to speak for attribution.We are moving in that direction,” acknowledged Senator David Vitter of Louisiana, the ranking Republican on the commerce committee’s space subcommittee

NASA’s human spaceflight program has been in limbo since February, when the Obama administration unveiled a budget request that would cancel the space agency’s current program to send astronauts back to the moon.

Under the president’s proposal, the human spaceflight program would shift its focus to developing new space technologies for several years before embarking on a program to reach more distant destinations of an asteroid around 2025 and Mars a decade later. The administration would also largely take NASA out of the rocket-building business and instead hire private companies that would provide a space taxi service for its astronauts.

Mr. Obama’s plan has not gained wide support in Congress, but neither has there been a groundswell to keep the current moon program, known as Constellation, which would need a large increase in financing to put it back on track.

A House subcommittee working on the 2011 budget last week agreed to finance NASA next year at $19 billion as requested by Mr. Obama, but sidestepped the controversy of what the money would be spent on by saying it would defer to what emerged in the NASA authorization.

The Senate bill resulted from negotiations between Senator John D. Rockefeller of West Virginia, a Democrat who is chairman of the commerce committee; Senator Kay Bailey of Hutchison, the committee’s ranking Republican; Senator Bill Nelson of Florida, a Democrat who is chairman of the commerce committee’s space subcommittee, and Mr. Vitter.

The bill marks a sign that Congressional opponents can move beyond their dislike of what Mr. Obama has proposed and devise an alternative that can attract bipartisan support.

Mr. Vitter, who attended a ceremony Thursday morning at a NASA factory here to mark the delivery of the last external fuel tank for the space shuttles, described the agreement as close, but added, “I don’t want to announce something as done until it is.”

In its current version, the bill would direct NASA to fly one more space shuttle mission in the second half of next year. The bill would also in effect restore full capabilities to the Constellation program’s Orion crew capsule by telling NASA to build a spacecraft that can undertake deep-space missions to destinations like the moon or an asteroid.

In April, President Obama said he wanted to retain the Orion crew capsule after shuttering the Constellation program, but as a stripped-down lifeboat for the International Space Station.

The authorization also directs NASA to start development of a new heavy-lift rocket immediately rather than waiting as late as 2015 in the president’s proposal.

Not all of the details of the Senate bill have been decided yet, and the corresponding committee in the House of Representatives has not yet begun work on its version of the authorization bill. It is also likely that the administration will fight to keep aspects of its plan that it still wants.

The Senate committee is scheduled to discuss and mark up the bill, known as the NASA Authorization Act of 2010, next Thursday.


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