Wednesday, June 25, 2008

Congress sets sights on moon, wants to boost NASA funding

WASHINGTON — Congress gave NASA another boost Tuesday when a U.S. Senate committee recommended a $2.6billion increase in the space agency's budget next year to accelerate its plans to return astronauts to the moon.

The $20.2billion mirrors the amount included in a similar bill that passed the U.S. House 409 to 15 last week. Both measures also require that NASA add another shuttle flight to deliver a physics experiment to the international space station.

Keeping the two versions alike makes it easier to get a NASA bill through Congress. Space supporters want to send a bill to President Bush — who opposes the House bill because it costs too much — before the November election, in part to send a message to the next president.

"Our enemy right now is time," said U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., who said he expects the full Senate to vote on the bill next month. Because there is little variation in the two bills, finding a compromise between the House and Senate versions should not be too difficult.

Urges global help

Each version encourages more climate research and pushes NASA to use the international space station — now slated for retirement in 2016 — until at least 2020. Each also encourages NASA to seek international participation in space exploration.

The one major difference is a Senate provision that would prohibit NASA Administrator Michael Griffin from doing anything to "preclude the continued safe and effective flight of the space shuttle orbiter after fiscal year 2010."

That's when NASA intends to retire the space shuttle to free up money for its replacement, the Constellation program, which aims to send American astronauts to the moon by 2020, and eventually to Mars. Griffin has insisted that NASA does not have enough money to continue flying the aging shuttle and also develop Constellation for a first planned launch in 2015.

In response, the Senate language expressly prohibits using Constellation funding to preserve the shuttle. But the bill also requires NASA to study what it would take to "continue space shuttle flight operations" between 2011 and 2015.

Shuttle safeguard

A Senate staff member, who asked not to be named so as to speak candidly, said the shuttle provisions were included as a safeguard in case plans to use Russian Soyuz spacecraft or still-untested commercial rockets to reach the space station fall through.

"We don't think that it's a decision that should be made in the near term that could affect our $100billion investment [into the space station]," said the staff member.

Nelson said no one "is seriously thinking about flying the space shuttle beyond 2010." A Democratic staff member said the language was intended to ensure that NASA could fly an additional shuttle mission in 2011 if necessary.

NASA spokesman Michael Cabbage said the agency doesn't comment on pending legislation.

Even if the House and Senate can reach a consensus, the NASA bill faces the problem of funding. Though both bills authorize $20.2billion, the White House has requested only $17.6billion, and congressional appropriators have budgeted $17.8billion.
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