House and Senate leaders have agreed to authorize $2.5 billion to keep the U.S. space shuttle fleet flying through 2011, if such an extension is necessary to complete currently planned missions to the international space station.
Funding to maintain shuttle operations past the current deadline of December 2010 is part of the nonbinding $3.4 trillion budget blueprint passed by the House and Senate on Wednesday. Extra budget authority for the shuttles – which was not requested by the White House or interim leaders of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration -- is still subject to future House and Senate appropriations bills. But it's the strongest signal yet that lawmakers want to maintain the option of a one-year delay in phasing out the aging shuttle fleet.
The retirement schedule is controversial because it affects thousands of aerospace industry jobs nationwide, and will partly determine the extent of the gap between the last shuttle mission and the first launch of replacement rockets and manned exploration vehicles NASA is now developing. House and Senate budget conferees agreed on "the strategic importance of uninterrupted human access to space" and said the extra $2.5 billion is provided "in anticipation that the funding is needed" to safely "complete the construction and equipping" of the space station.
The additional funding was championed by Sen. Bill Nelson of Florida, the Democratic chairman of a science subcommittee with authority over NASA programs. Sen. Nelson and his supporters contend that pushing out shuttle retirements would protect the industrial base and avoid undue reliance on Russian launches to reach the space station in the next decade. They also are looking for ways to postpone or cushion layoffs that would add to unemployment rolls in Florida, Texas and elsewhere.
By contrast, NASA officials and some large agency contractors worry the result would be to shift badly-needed funding from shuttle replacement programs that already face big budget, technical and schedule challenges. Some NASA officials and outside advisers, while sticking with the December 2010 retirement deadline, have gone so far as to argue that funneling extra money to the shuttles may sap momentum of work on their replacements, together dubbed the Constellation program. NASA officials fear that further budget cuts to Constellation would endanger financial and public support for it.
NASA officials also recently told Congress they plan to promote development of an alternate manned rocket and vehicle combination – a proposed solution excluding Constellation—by offering industry some of the money the agency is slated to receive from the previously enacted economic stimulus legislation. But to succeed, such an alternate plan requires billions of dollars over the next few years. And at this point, the White House and NASA officials don't seem willing or able to provide that kind of hefty funding to spur industry development of this option
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