NASA, best known as the agency that put the first man on the moon, is about to end its moon program for the foreseeable future.
Under legislation passed by the House late Wednesday, the nation’s spaceflight program will take a new direction. NASA — the National Aeronautics and Space Administration — will turn to private companies to launch astronauts into space, while it starts work on a larger rocket for travel to more distant destinations — an asteroid, perhaps, and eventually Mars.
The bill “helps put the U.S. space program on a more sustainable trajectory,” Lori B. Garver, NASA’s deputy administrator, said Thursday during a telephone news conference. “We now have an important framework.”
The House, in a 304-to-118 vote on Wednesday, approved a Senate-written bill authorizing $58 billion for NASA over the next three years and setting priorities for the agency. The Senate passed the bill in August, and it now goes to President Obama for his signature.
As requested by the administration in February, it cancels Constellation, the ambitious program that was to have sent astronauts back to the moon to establish an outpost, but which no longer fits in the budget. NASA has spent more than $10 billion on Constellation in the past five years, mostly on the Ares I rocket and Orion crew capsule.
However, the compromise legislation does not cancel all of Constellation, as Mr. Obama had originally sought. Development of Orion, capable of deep space missions, is to continue, and the bill directs NASA to develop a heavy-lift rocket able to propel a payload of at least 70 tons.
The next skirmish is likely to be over the design of that rocket. The new bill clearly envisions a rocket built of components used in the space shuttles and Constellation’s soon-to-be-canceled Ares I rocket. The Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, which wrote the bill, said in an accompanying report that it expected the rocket to include solid-fuel boosters like those of the shuttle or Ares I.
Some NASA and administration officials have considered switching to the Delta IV and Atlas V rockets currently used to launch satellites for the Air Force. They believe those could be more efficient and less costly because they would avoid infrastructure used only for NASA launchings.
Ms. Garver said that NASA would study all options, including the Delta IV and Atlas V. The legislation calls for NASA to report to Congress in 90 days with a plan for the heavy-lift rocket.
The mandate also extends the space shuttle era. Instead of retiring the shuttles in February, it provides money for one more flight to take supplies to the International Space Station in the second half of 2011.
To pay for the additional shuttle flight and the heavy-lift rocket, the authorization cut deeply into money for future space technologies that NASA had hoped to develop, like orbiting fuel stations.
Despite the lopsided vote in favor of the bill, support for it was not unequivocal. Opponents called it a bad bill; supporters called it flawed, but better than no bill.
“Like Candide, it’s the best of all possible worlds,” said John Logsdon, a space policy expert at George Washington University. “It answers the political imperatives.”
Some of the transitions have already begun. Alliant Techsystems Inc., the company that builds the solid-fuel boosters for the space shuttles and Ares I, announced 426 layoffs on Thursday.
Some of the layoffs had been expected as the shuttle program have wound down, but the cuts are also a result of the end of Ares I and Constellation.
Even after Mr. Obama signs the bill into law, NASA cannot yet begin working in earnest on its new mission. Congress has not finished any of the appropriation bills, which set the actual spending levels, for the 2011 fiscal year, which starts Friday. And the stopgap continuing resolution keeps NASA’s spending levels — and programs, including Constellation — unchanged until after the election in November.
By KENNETH CHANG/NYT