A NASA budget compromise could reinvigorate the space agency if lawmakers ever get around to voting on the spending plan.
Throughout the spring and summer, a dreary congressional debate over the future of U.S. human spaceflight has extended beyond the Obama administration’s controversial attempts to redirect scarce NASA resources. Many lawmakers, especially those with NASA facilities or contractors in their districts, initially blasted the Obama plan as a blueprint for ceding American leadership in space. Supporters embraced the White House plan as a way to boost the commercial space industry while creating a little competition for the big aerospace (cost-plus) contractors
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The House and Senate committees with jurisdiction over NASA’s budget and programs have been wrangling for months over spending priorities and what the space agency’s mission will be after the shuttle program ends and the orbiters land in museums. Depending on where in the solar system you would like to see astronauts explore next, and whether your job is on the line, there’s something for everyone in the opposing House and Senate bills for funding NASA.
While it’s unclear whether Congress will even pass a spending bill for the space agency by the end of the year, House members nevertheless put out compromise NASA reauthorization language this week in an attempt to break a House-Senate impasse. The House text moves closer to the Senate NASA budget bill, responding to critics who say the House should simply adopt the Senate’s version and get on with a vote. Congressional approval would reauthorize NASA spending for the next three years. (Translation: Congress must first give agencies the authority to spend, then appropriate the money.)
The revised House bill spearheaded by Rep. Bart Gordon, outgoing chairman of the House Science Committee, now includes $1.2 billion over three years for a post-shuttle commercial crew and cargo taxi. The Senate wants to spend $1.6 billion. In another bow to the Senate, the House bill also directs NASA to immediately begin development of a heavy-lift booster. The new rocket could be ready to carry a new spacecraft by the end of 2016.
If approved, a compromise NASA budget would spell the end of the Constellation moon-rocket program, although its Orion “crew exploration vehicle” would remain in some form. Good riddance.
The next hurdle is getting legislators to take a few hours off from campaign fundraising to actually approve a NASA spending bill that President Obama can sign.
Then, a reinvigorated space agency could get to work while commercial outfits like SpaceX prepare for the next orbital launch of its Falcon 9 rocket. The launch, expected in November, will carry an unmanned Dragon spacecraft into orbit and, if all goes as planned, to splashdown and recovery.
So, we might be seeing some progress after months of dueling press conferences and overheated floor speeches. If so, we also may soon be able to answer the question: When will humans again leave their home planet and what will transport them?